After nearly two decades of startup life, and over forty years of, well, life, I decided it was time to give back, and to help make the world a little better. By “give back,” I do not mean giving money to charity, volunteering at a soup kitchen or helping out at my kids’ schools, but rather sharing my experience and expertise.
I am an entrepreneur. And in today’s economy, I see nothing more important than “paying it forward” to budding entrepreneurs to help them get their companies off the ground, spread innovation and create jobs.
Looking back, I sorely wish someone would had given me this advice during my long journey of starting startups.
I would have loved for a seasoned entrepreneur to walk into Nimble, my first startup, to teach me that not all founders need to be the CEO. I would have loved a hardened chief marketing officer to walk into 2WAY and demand we find a reasonable elevator pitch in the first few months, rather than after the very tough first million in sales. And I would have loved a weathered chief operating officer at Mforma to help focus on integrating acquisitions versus furthering acquisitions.
At Ground Truth — my most recent company — Tom Huseby provided awesome advice as a professional chairman not as a pure altruistic “give back.”
My “give-back quest” began two years ago — not uncommon for people at my stage of life. If it is not something you’ve done or thought about, I urge you to try.
Getting started wasn’t as easy as it sounds.
The concept of adding additional, unpaid, non-urgent work to my already busy schedule was not easy to swallow. Neither was scheduling time away from both work and family, giving that time total strangers, with no financial benefits in return.
But with a drive to do good, I pushed on, only to hit an unexpected hurdle.
Where do I go to help?
If there is a guidebook to giving back, I missed it. If there is a LinkedIn or Google group, I’m not a member. Nothing incoming came my way beyond the deluge of alumni email from my alma mater, where help is defined far more as a donation than knowledge sharing.
Here’s how I made it past that hurdle:
I first turned to TiE, an organization devoted to helping wanna-be entrepreneurs. I attended an event, was invited to speak at their Breakfast Series, then to speak at the bigger events. From there, I organized panels for future events. But in these efforts, I found no budding startups in need of my help, and little quenching of my desire to give back.
Next, I turned to the University of Washington’s Center for Commercialization (UWCC). Thanks to Linden Rhoads and Ken Myer, I was brought in front of the right people. I volunteered my time, no strings attached, only to find that such an offer had apparently never been offered there before.
Instead, the UWCC had a program for Entrepreneurs-in-Residence, 15 on board at the time, all offering not only their time and experience, but each looking to run or join one of the spun-off companies. There weren’t enough potential companies to keep them all busy, let alone me.
At this point, simply finding a place to give back was frustratingly more difficult than actually giving back, and certainly far less rewarding. But, as I’m not one to give up easily, I pressed on.
About a year into my search, I stumbled across Bainbridge Graduate Institute, an accredited MBA program in my own neighborhood. After a half dozen LinkedIn requests and email, I was invited to an open house, where I pitched myself and my plan for no-strings, pay it forward, entrepreneurial assistance.
Again I was surprised at their reaction, discovering that in the history of the school, no one had ever volunteered in that manner. Nonetheless, I made the “sale.”
Last quarter, I helped dozens of students learn the art of writing and pitching business plans. One team in particular, Stockbox Grocers, took me on as advisor, then two days later told me of their intention to enter the UW Business Plan Competition.
With weeks of intense feedback and hundreds of hours of effort, Stockbox won Best Service/Retail Idea and placed second overall. That was nice, but it got much better. Less than a month ago, they launched the company and opened an actual store.
Perseverance paid off, and I’m hungry for more.
This quarter, I’m already helping the next crop of BGI MBAs with their plans. And in sharing this story with people like Susan Sigl at the WTIA, Geoff Entress at Voyager Capital and Chris DeVore at Founders Co-op, I am now finding new “give back” opportunities, most of which did not exist when I began my initial search.
All of this makes me curious how others managed to find ways to give back.
Where do you give back? Did you face similar issues? Did you once want to help, but never found an outlet?
I encourage others to share their stories, so that others who want to help can one day open the “give back guidebook” and with little friction find a way to help Seattle thrive. To create such a guidebook, we first need to know the options, including the blind alleys and the successful paths.