Teaching a VC How To See

Mary Haskett, founder and CEO of Blink Identity, had a problem. Time after time, she and her cofounder, Alex Kilpatrick, would walk into an important meeting—often with a potential investor—and Alex, a man, would get the handshake.

People looked at the two of them and assumed he was the CEO and she was from the marketing department. Mary would quickly settle the misunderstanding, but everyone ended up embarrassed, and she often felt angry. It was a bad way to start a meeting, let alone a new working relationship.

Finding the Pattern

So Mary started looking for a solution. After all, she’s an expert in machine learning and pattern recognition. The Blink Identity security gateway uses facial biometrics to identify people. She has literally taught a computer how to see faces and correctly identify them. How could she teach the busy people she was meeting with to correctly identify her as the CEO?

“I started to frame it in terms of pattern recognition,” Mary said. “That VC probably doesn’t hate women. Or at least, that’s not a useful assumption.” The VC, rather, is busy, and sees what he expects to see (91% of the decision makers at U.S. venture capital firms are men).

When there’s too much data coming in, pattern recognition makes sense of it all. Figuring out how to teach machines how to do this is hard work, but people do it all the time. We have to do it. There’s always too much data: the world, in all its multitudinous splendor, is too much data.

That busy VC has met with thousands of entrepreneurs, and most of them have been men (though this is slowly changing, but has historically been the case). He’s probably meeting with a long string of entrepreneurs just today. So when a man and a woman walk in, he assumes that the pattern will hold true, and he holds out his hand to the man.

It Takes Teamwork

Once Mary thought about the problem this way, she let go of her anger around it. “It’s wrong, but it’s not personal,” she said. “And once I realized that it wasn’t personal—that the VC wasn’t slighting me personally—I started coming up with strategies to change the data, change the pattern.”

Today, when Mary and Alex walk into a room, she goes in first, and he enters a beat behind her. By then, she’s already got her hand out. They intentionally code their clothing: business clothes for her, company t-shirt and jeans for him. Also, if there’s anything at all to be carried into the room, Alex is carrying it. This subtly reinforces that Mary is in charge, plus it keeps her hands free for the shake.

Just like that, Mary is the CEO, and everyone knows it.

Mary and Alex have also come up with a technique for questions that are asked to the room at large, or even directly to Alex, but that Mary, as CEO, should be answering. Even though Alex may know the answer perfectly well—he’s the CTO, after all—he stays silent. Mary answers.

Of course, this takes real teamwork. “Alex has to be a partner in this,” Mary said. “He could undermine me very easily. Instead, he and I brainstorm solutions together.” It helps that these two are old friends, but any co-founders can do this—if they’re willing to work together and support each other.

Make the Pattern Work For You

In the man-filled world of entrepreneurship, Mary stands out just by being a woman. She breaks the pattern. Depending on the situation, she may do her best to minimize this, or to make it work for her.

“I did a lot of work for the Department of Defense.” Mary said. “They all wear suits, they all have a certain way of being. You either have to match it so they don’t even see that you’re a woman, or break it so strongly that they really have to see you.” At the DoD, Mary chose to go with the pattern, doing her best to blend into the rigid expectations so that she would be taken seriously.

In the startup world, Mary often goes in the other direction. As a woman, she already breaks the pattern, so she doubled down on this strategy in order to stand out and be more than just another in the day’s string of meetings.

She met a lot of investors during the Techstars Music Accelerator, but she wasn’t looking for funding yet. She was still working on customer discovery and knew it was important to get this right first. What she wanted was to ask the investors questions. “For someone who’s used to being asked for money, asking them questions instead broke the pattern,” Mary said. “By breaking the pattern, I got VCs to really see me.”

Mary also calms herself in investor meetings by breaking her own patterns of thinking. “I remind myself: they’re looking for a good investment. They’re not all powerful people to do a song and dance for.” Instead, she tries to think of VCs as coworkers. “We’re equals, peers, and each of us has different things we’re bringing to the table. I’ve got the idea, the tech, plenty on my side.”

Not that this makes the process easy: “Plenty of times my knees are shaking, but I do it anyway,” Mary said.

For Mary, this approach to investor meetings also helped her find investors who were truly looking to partner with Blink Identity and build a lasting relationship. A few months after the end of the accelerator program, Blink Identity raised a $1.5 million seed round.

How Do You Want To Be Seen?

We all should be doing the important work of finding our implicit biases and evaluating how they impact our behavior. (A man and a woman walk into a meeting. Whose hand do you shake first?)

But Mary’s lens of pattern recognition offers a tool for dealing with the world as it is, where we all have to cope with bias. This doesn’t remove anyone else’s responsibility to manage their bias, but it does offer some measure of control on your end.

The next time you’re heading into an important meeting, think about the pattern recognition going on in the people you’re about to meet. And ask yourself what you can do to help yourself be seen the way you want to be seen.

3 Tips for Startups Looking to Stand Out to Corporate Partners

By Kate Drane, Techstars Network Engagement Manager

Hey founders: Did you know that at any given time, your startup may be in the process of being considered for a game-changing opportunity? It’s true!

As a Techstars Network Engagement Manager, a critical part of my role is to serve as a matchmaker between our corporate partners and Techstars portfolio companies. My team and I pore through our portfolio a few times a week, searching for amazing companies that best match the needs of our corporate partners. In addition, most corporations and investment teams have at least one team member that serves a similar role, and our need is the same: we are on the hunt for innovative startups (like yours!).

Whether or not you’re part of the Techstars network, if your company’s goals include entering into a strategic partnership with a corporate partner, securing investment, or attracting new customers, here are a few tips that any founder can take to better position their company to stand out:

Tip #1: Optimize your website

Oftentimes your website is the first place a corporate partner will look for information about your company.

  • Make it easy for someone to quickly understand your company by having a one to two sentence description that can be copy-pasted from your homepage.
  • Include the logos of your clients (especially if they are other corporations). This can serve as a proof point to a potential corporate partner that you have the infrastructure to work with them.
  • Many corporations have firewalls that prohibit them from visiting unsecure sites, so be sure to encrypt your website.

Tip #2: Ensure that your social media is up to date

Your social media presence can play a powerful role in helping to create a holistic view of your company.

  • Crunchbase and AngelList are two commonly leveraged tools to provide publicly available funding information and more. Visit your profiles on both, and if any of your information is out of date, use these instructions to make updates: AngelList and Crunchbase.
  • Routinely update your LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram profiles. Your social presence helps to demonstrate that your company is active and thriving.

Tip #3: Update Connect (this applies to Techstars portfolio companies only)

Here at Techstars we are committed to the notion of “Techstars for Life,” and that means bringing additional value to our portfolio companies both during and after they have completed their program. For Techstars founders, our internal platform, Connect, serves as an important tool to help us identify startups that fit specific opportunities.

  • Visit your company’s Connect profile, and ensure that all of your information is up to date. Taking this small action can be a game-changer. For example, some corporate partners may be on the lookout to meet with startups in their region, and when our team has the correct data, it ensures that we can connect them with you (double opt-in, of course).

This list is by no means exhaustive, however taking these small but important steps will help to position your company for the magic of engineered serendipity. Who knows, a game-changing opportunity may be trying to find you right now!

I would love to hear from you. What steps has your startup taken to stand out? Leave your best advice in the comments.


Learn more about how the the Techstars Network Engagement Program helps corporations and startups work together—to the benefit of both.

Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars Lifts Student-Led Ventures With New Cohort Program

Being a student entrepreneur comes with a unique set of challenges. Student founders need guidance from a community that understands not just what it takes to build a company, but how to balance—and get the most out of—being both a full-time student and a full-time entrepreneur. As part of their mission to help student entrepreneurs succeed, Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars is launching the inaugural 2019 LaunchPad Lift Cohort, a personalized mentorship-driven program for LaunchPad student-led ventures from the United States and Ireland.

“The Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars entrepreneurship program offers students valuable on-campus support through content and mentors. Through this program, Techstars, the worldwide network that helps entrepreneurs succeed, is dedicated to supporting those students through the entrepreneurial journey from inspiration to IPO,” said David Cohen, Co-CEO of Techstars.

LaunchPad Lift will help bridge the gap between the Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars programming available on each college campus and the next big steps student-led ventures need for their companies. Whether the ventures are planning to apply to an accelerator program, raise capital, or make their first hire, the LaunchPad Lift Cohort takes ventures through a personalized experience with an assigned Techstars mentor to help them succeed. In addition, ventures will be exposed to experts from the Techstars network who will share their best practices on building a business.

We asked some of our LaunchPad student-led venture founders to tell us about the impact of the program. Here’s what one wrote: “Our Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars mentors have been critical to our success. Between mentorship and connections, we have grown and accelerated our progress tenfold by being a part of this community!”

We’re excited to announce that seven student-led ventures, who presented at the 2018 LaunchPad Training Camp, were selected to join the inaugural LaunchPad Lift Cohort. These seven ventures are from the LaunchPad Global Network and the founders represent seven schools in four states and two countries, with ventures in seven distinct industries. Additionally, over 50% of the startups in the 2019 LaunchPad Lift Cohort have diverse founding teams that include women and people of color.

Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars selected these ventures based on several factors: live pitches and peer voting at the LaunchPad Training Camp, mentor feedback, and a review process conducted by the Blackstone and Techstars team to assess the strength of each team’s business model and concept, coach-ability, and venture stage, as well as the team’s passion and their ability to fully utilize a mentor to grow.

“Over the course of the 2018 LaunchPad Training Camp, I had the opportunity to meet with ventures from over twenty universities, hear their pitches, and get to know the entrepreneurs. I was incredibly impressed by these student ventures—the diversity of ideas, the commitment to entrepreneurship, and the potential for scalable impact were all exceptional,” said Amy Stursberg, Executive Director of the Blackstone Charitable Foundation.

LaunchPad Lift will run for 10 weeks, from January 28 through April 1, 2019. Each participating student-led venture will receive a $10,000 grant upon program completion, and join the Blackstone Charitable Foundation and Techstars team at a closing event in New York City.

Meet the Seven Ventures:

CALM (Temple): CALM is a small device that uses pulses of vibrations to influence the brain and de-escalate rising stress and anxiety attacks.

Combplex (Cornell): Combplex is an innovative solution to beekeepers’ number one problem, eliminating the parasites killing their bees.

Lazarus (Texas A&M): Lazarus provides a unique degree of lethality by designing projectiles that penetrate a threat, then minimize blood loss post-penetration in order to preserve life.

My Wellbeing (NYU): My Wellbeing connects therapy-seekers to compatible therapist and coach matches in NYC.

Petitas (USC): Petitas LA is a clothing brand by and for petite, professional women.

Shower Stream (UT Austin): The Shower Stream is a smart shower head adapter that installs as easily as a light bulb, saves water waste, proves the savings via the web, and is completely unobtrusive to the user.

NUA Surgical (NUI Galway): NUA Surgical is developing a novel medical device to make caesarean delivery a safer and more superior surgery.

The Blackstone Charitable Foundation and Techstars partnership increases the chances for collegiate ventures to succeed by ensuring they have the resources they need to thrive. The Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars entrepreneurship program is accessible by over 500,000 college students globally and designed to support and mentor students, staff, and alumni entrepreneurs regardless of major, experience, or discipline.

How Microsoft, Uber, Twitter and Google Came to Boulder

This post originally appeared on David Cohen's own blog at davidgcohen.com/

A thriving startup community provides a boost to the greater community in lots of ways. It encourages innovation and investment, attracts creative, entrepreneurial people, and generates a certain energy– making the entire city a more desirable place to live.

Additionally, when local startups are acquired by big companies, and those companies hire more people in the area, the result is more jobs, which boosts the local economy in a lot of new ways.

A great example of how big companies get here is Sketchup, a startup that my partner Mark Solon invested in back when it was a tiny company. Google acquired Sketchup in 2006 (yep, I was blogging about Colorado startups way back then), and we’ve had the footprint of Google’s presence in Boulder ever since then. Bolstered by the addition of around 1,500 jobs in Boulder, over the years that acquisition has significantly contributed to Boulder’s growth and housing boom.

Similarly, in 2011 Federated Media purchased Lijit (now Sovrn), leading to an increase in hiring at the Boulder office. And in 2014, Boulder startup Gnip was acquired by Twitter, leading to their large office here. By the way, even as I write this Twitter has 10 job openings in Boulder right now.

Microsoft brought an office to Boulder when it bought the startup Vexcel. Later, Uber opened up a Boulder office when it acquired some of the Bing assets and Microsoft continued to operate here.

There are plenty of other examples in Boulder alone. By my count, about 2,000 high paying, high tech, “big company” jobs in Boulder can be traced back to startups from the last decade. Not to mention the many thousands more jobs that are enabled by the current generation of startups today.

This is how an active startup community impacts the broader community, well beyond just the startup community itself. It impacts all aspects of the area, including real estate, retail and housing in major ways. Next time you find yourself wondering if startups really matter to a community, take a look at Boulder and ask yourself why Google and Twitter employ so many people here. Startups are responsible for most net new jobs in America. As big companies continue to cut back, we can continue to look to startups to create our future.

The purpose of Techstars’ Worldwide Entrepreneur Network is to help entrepreneurs succeed. Check out the impact of the Techstars’ network over the past 10 years.

Investors Dropping Names Like It’s Hot: Making Use of VC Introductions

Many entrepreneurs will recognize this scenario: You finally get a meeting with a big-name VC partner. In preparation, you spend a week polishing your deck, financial model and pitch. Then, you get to your meeting and the partner is 20 minutes late. Plus, he or she has to run on the hour, so you have 40 minutes to squeeze everything in.

So, you start running through your pitch while the VC looks on, at best, half interested. Then as you wrap up, the VC says something like, “your business is not a current fit for their fund” or “it’s too early and you should come back with some traction” (see my previous post on Micro-Traction).

But, then something that may seem weird to a first-time founder happens.

Just as the VC is passing on your deal, they start dropping names.Though they aren’t going to invest, they know the VP of Cloud Services at Google, an editor at Vogue, or some other relevant contacts that could be partners or clients to your business.

I’ll admit, I often partake in this very behavior at Wonder Ventures. It comes from the genuine desire to help founders, whether I will invest or not. I can see they’re putting everything into their company and I want to use my network to help (and I assume most VCs that name-drop are doing the same thing).

But trust me. For all the times that I offer relevant introductions to entrepreneurs, the percentage of them who take me up on this is way too small. So, I put it to all entrepreneurs to not overlook this opportunity. Here’s why:

Even if they “passed,” it shows your follow-through

Hustle is one of the most crucial qualities of an entrepreneur and something I always look for before investing. Even if I say I am not going to invest right now, if I offer to make an intro for you and you don’t follow up (much less write it down), then what kind of hustle do you have? How are you going to overcome the many hurdles that stand in the way of a startup, when you can’t even capitalize on an intro handed to you on a silver platter? Some investors use this as an implicit test. So follow through, and you’ll pass.

It’s the best way to build your relationship with the investor

If you take the time and effort to follow through on the investor’s connections, you could turn these introductions into relationships, or even pilot customers and business partners. As a result, the next time that investor catches up with the friend they connected you with, that friend just might mention how excited they are by you and your company.

This, in turn, could bring a great investor back to the table and possibly push them over the edge to invest in your business.

It might show that you don’t want them to invest

The relationship with your investors is key. So, any investor who offers introductions offhand and then can’t follow through is probably an investor you want to avoid. Either they’re overstating their connections, or they just aren’t very helpful. Either way, it’s a sign that they won’t be a very supportive (or trustworthy) investor.

#StartUpHack: Use VCs for Business Development 

This is also a hack that I give to many founders. It’s hard to get introductions to potential partners and customers. After all, you’re running a startup and can’t afford a sales team. But, VC introductions and due diligence can lead to tons of great connections, usually directly to company founders.

For example: If your company sells dev-ops tools to SaaS companies, what better way to get in front of them than as part of due diligence from a VC with a deep SaaS portfolio? Work to get these introductions and you’ll significantly accelerate your business development pipeline.

In sum, these introductions from investors serve as one of the best ways to build relationships with them, as well as a subtle form of due diligence of you and your company. Don’t overlook them and don’t forget to follow up. Because if you over-deliver on these intros, you’ll see that many investors will get excited to be a part of your startup.

Techstars helps entrepreneurs succeed. Interested in joining the worldwide entrepreneur network? Learn how.

This was originally published on Medium.

Call for Speakers & Sponsors: 5th Annual Women's Small Business Conference

Join the Colorado SBDC Network for the 5th Annual Northwest Colorado Women’s Small Business Conference at Copper Mountain on Friday, October 10!

This event sells out every year – don’t wait to buy your tickets!

This year's conference will feature keynote speaker Sylvia Theisen, a Colorado psychotherapist, top sales producer and change maker! Theisen spent the first 13 years of her career in a pscyhotherapist's office. No, not on the couch (although she's done plenty of that), but running a successful practice counseling employees of Fortune 500 companies.
This year’s conference will feature keynote speaker Sylvia Theisen, a Colorado psychotherapist, top sales producer and change maker! Theisen spent the first 13 years of her career in a pscyhotherapist’s office. No, not on the couch (although she’s done plenty of that), but running a successful practice counseling employees of Fortune 500 companies.

Join other like-minded female entrepreneurs for an

exciting, interactive day packed with hands-on business training seminars, free one-on-one consulting, exhibitor tables featuring area resources, plenty of networking opportunities, and more!

Leave the conference feeling refreshed and rejuvenated, with plenty of action items, connections and inspiration to take your business to the next level of success!