Don’t Tell; Do Ask

Every morning, I spend a bit of time reflecting on a person and how they have impacted my life. For me, it’s an important exercise in remembering two things:

1) It is impossible to achieve without support. Even haters need someone to create something to hate.

2) We learn more by how we are influenced than by what we are taught. The general rule is that we “forget” (transfer easily accessed information from short-term memory to difficult to access long-term memory) 70% of what we are taught. But lessons and influence stay with us, since they shape our very outlook.

In the late summer of 2007, I remember being about 6 months post-acquistion of Current Wisdom, sitting in a $1,500 desk chair looking at a $10,000 painting. I was on track to hit my 24 month revenue goal in 9 months (which meant my earn-out would be accelerated to 12 months), and I was so under-stimulated that I just sat there making a list in my head.

“Bought stupid shit. Check.”
“Bored senseless. Check.”
“Go to lunch? Did it twice already today.”

As most entrepreneurs, I was thinking of several ideas of businesses that would be fun to explore. One stuck in my head.

iChat conversation:

micah: “Let’s grab lunch.”

danny: “haven’t you been twice already?”

micah: “I’ll pay.”

danny: “I’m in.”

I met with Danny and among several topics, I told him about my pet idea. “You should meet David Cohen.” he said. “Who?” I responded.

David Cohen was in the midst of starting an accelerator program in Boulder. The idea was simple. As an angel investor, take ten interesting companies, give them resources and mentorship and see where they go.

I emailed David my idea. His response was “I don’t know anything about pets, but you should come check out Techstars.”

And I did, and in the process gained a mentor and friend. I spent a good amount of time with David and the program and saw the power mentorship had not only on me, but also on the futures of those ten companies and the entrepreneurs nurturing them.

(One thing that still makes me smile to this day is that early on I asked David to list me as a ‘Junior Mentor.’ While it was pretty damn funny, it also gave me my own section on the website, given I was the only junior mentor. I think it lasted for two years, when I ‘negotiated’ my ascension to regular mentor by making a couple of photocopies for David.)

More interestingly was watching David grow as he was being mentored. He always looked at Techstars as a grand experiment to learn from, and to this day continues to follow a very similar mindset.

David inadvertently taught me two things that have stuck with me:

1) Don’t Tell; Do Ask
2) Truth Must Be Direct, Specific and Succinct.

The second was easy. Give good advice in the least amount of words possible. It forces truth and directness. It removed ambiguity and forces the listener to respond to the facts not the feelings.

The first was hard. We are taught that when we are asked a question, we should provide the answer. David will often ask a question. And then another one. And a third. Even when he knows the answer.

Most of the mentors in my life do the same, but it wasn’t until I experienced David doing it with others, and seeing how the change in the dynamic from teaching to discovering positively effected the entrepreneurs did it stick.

(Yes, I know it’s called the Socratic Method, but knowing that ice cream is called ice cream does’t mean you know how it tastes until the first lick.)

That’s what I thought about this morning. About how being a great mentor isn’t about providing an answer, its about helping the entrepreneur get to the right question.

Right, David?


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