Two years ago, I was a bright-eyed graduate from the University of Colorado, Boulder. I had a passion for entrepreneurship and technology and was starting my first job in two weeks.
I was to be the Internet Marketing Associate for the Techstars Boulder class of 2015.
In many ways, this was my dream job. Associates get to be extra sets of hands for the ten companies accepted into Techstars Boulder each year. You help the companies do more faster and get access to the same content, mentorship, and network that the entrepreneurs do.
I was supposed to be helping companies with internet marketing, but I mostly ran around with my video camera filming everything that was happening. I filmed world-class talks, documented late-night hilarity, and captured some of the fondest memories of my life. In the end, I made a short highlight reel of the program that we premiered to over 1,000 mentors, investors, and community members at Techstars Demo Day.
This experience changed my life. The sense of family and community born during a Techstars program is incredible. The mentorship and educational content is irresistible. I was making lifelong friends and was drinking from a firehose.
The only problem was, before I knew it, my contract was expiring.
Associates sign on for 90 days. The trajectory is pretty straightforward. Spend 3 months creating relationships with the Techstars cohort and join one of the ten companies after Demo Day. I was keen on realizing that objective, and began thinking hard about which company I might like to join.
I looked first at the founders.
I knew that I wanted to work for the best and brightest team. I looked for founders that had the experience necessary to grow their business and could become lifelong mentors for an eager learner like myself. I didn’t much care what the startups were working on or if I thought the business was great, I just wanted the best possible people.
I shared my thinking with a Techstars mentor and what she said that day dramatically altered the next year of my life.
She said this:
“With early stage startups, the team is never enough. You must be passionate about the product. If you’re going to spend the next five or ten years building this business and you’re not obsessed with the product, then every day will be an uphill battle.”
This shook me. I took another look at the startup I liked and red flags popped up everywhere.
B2B software? Marketing Intelligence tool? Sold to data scientists? SaaS?
I wasn’t passionate about any of these things. Not even close. I was 22 years old and no piece of B2B software had ever changed my life. I was a photographer and videographer passionate about education and the outdoors. I thought lead qualification was boring as hell, and just wanted to work with a great team.
Fortunately, in this moment, another realization came to light. There was a product that I was passionate about. It was a product that fundamentally changed my life. It had taught me more in the last three months than I had learned in the last four years of college.
It wasn’t a product made by one of the Techstars companies in the batch — it was Techstars itself.
I hastily moved beyond the other startup, and set my eyes on Techstars.
By far the most transformational thing I was exposed to at Techstars was the educational content. Talks and workshops led by industry leaders came through the Boulder program multiple times a week. From Lean Startup talks by Eric Ries, to Journey Mapping with John Kemble, fundraising Jiu Jitsu from David Cohen, and the famous “How to Pitch, B*tch” talk by Nicole Glaros, this stuff opened my eyes.
I quickly found out how to get involved.
All of content across the Techstars Network was syndicated by one man, Zach Nies. Zach was based in Boulder and heavily involved in program. He turned out to be one of the most giving individuals I’ve ever met, and I had been peppering him with questions all program long.
I knew I had to ask him for a job.
The stars aligned. I asked Zach for a job and he said yes. I had years of experience in video production, and he saw video as the key to scaling the impact of great content across the Techstars Network. Zach was excited to start building a suite of educational products. I became his product manager.
I spent the next year and a half teaching Techstars companies from all over the world everything they needed to know to get their businesses off the ground. We anchored on lean and agile. Zach was on the founding team at Rally Software, and had decades of experience bringing lean and agile techniques into two and two thousand person companies.
I became an expert in Lean Startup. I could recite fundraising talks by memory. I learned tried-and-true financial modeling and go-t0-market strategies that you simply can’t find anywhere else. I learned the secret sauce that makes Techstars companies so successful. I learned by teaching and I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.
The best part was that by staying close to Techstars Boulder I got to help out with another program. The 2016 Boulder class came through and I met ten more CEOs, saw ten more startups, and again looked closely at the products. I was tempted by killer founding teams, and even saw some consumer products that interested me.
But by then I was hooked on education, and wasn’t lured away by any companies in the 2016 class.
Q4 2016 rolled around and some bad news was starting to circulate. It began to look like Zach wouldn’t have the budget to keep me on for Q1 2017.
This was really hard to hear. I left Boulder for the Bay Area. It felt like I had fallen flat on my face. I couldn’t find anything I was passionate about. I was depressed. Unknown to me at the time, I had some good Karma coming my way.
While aimlessly scrolling twitter, I came across this tweet from the Director of Techstars Boulder:
I learned later that Julie and the Managing Director, Natty liked the video work I did for them in 2015 and 2016 so much that they decided to hire an entirely new role for 2017, the Storyteller Associate. I called up Julie and asked her for the job.
She said yes. My dream was resurrected.
I was living in the Bay Area at the time and was about to leave for a ten day ski trip. That gave me less than two weeks to get to Boulder and ramp up for program. I said hasty goodbyes, packed everything into my car, and drove halfway across the country to Boulder.
I was so behind that I hadn’t looked at the class announcement at all. I walked in on the first day and met the companies I’d spend the next 90 days and nights with.
I was amazed. The Techstars 2017 class was large and strong, with thirteen companies led by founders with awesome, diverse backgrounds. We had one company doing millions in revenue and others that were pre-product. Some companies had thousands of users, others had none. We had the first ever non-profit to go through Techstars.
We lined up to do our first elevator pitches, and one company immediately stood out. It was Hardbound. Hardbound was built for people like me. An app to help curious minds learn new things. I’m captain curious, and have been sick and tired of my social feeds for years.
Hardbound was exactly the sort of constructive, gratifying mobile experience that I needed in my life. I downloaded the app and read every story that I could. I learned how fire works, the history of the motion picture camera, where emojis come from, and countless other cool stories. I was getting smarter and spending less time in my depressing social feeds (this was late January 2017 mind you).
I maxed out my free account and started asking Nathan Bashaw, Hardbound’s CEO, for access to locked stories.
At this point, I had a feeling this was the product I had been waiting for, but I hadn’t learned much about the team.
In week two we do Mentor Madness. I asked Nathan if I could sit in on his mentor meetings and take notes. After sitting through dozens of meetings I began to get to know Nathan, and liked what I saw.
On the surface, Nathan is the type of CEO you read about. Strongly held convictions, incredible product insight, and vision. He can also be pretty defensive, but I learned it’s for the right reasons.
As the meetings progressed, it became clear what sets him apart: His unbreakable vision and deep-seated empathy. He’s not afraid to build something that’s unpopular and he’s unwilling to compromise his vision for profitability or business sense. He also has immense empathy for his users. He wants to do right by them more that he wants fame, money, or success. After dozens of meetings listening to Nathan, I knew he was the type of founder I would like to work for.
After Mentor Madness, I tried something. I asked Nathan if I could write a Hardbound story about what I had seen in Mentor Madness. He was down, and I wrote, “How’s Hardbound Going?”, a story that over 7,000 people have read.
It was an awesome experience. In no time I had published a story that just worked. I used original photos that I had taken, and the pace and timing were just right. It turns out that script writing for videos, like I’ve been doing for years, is incredibly similar to writing a Hardbound story.
Nathan’s cofounder Joe was surprised by my first story, and said that it took Nathan months to be able to write like that.
Another seed had been planted within me.
Hardbound made a slight pivot mid-program, and launched their new app on Product Hunt. People loved it and it soared to number one. I loved their new direction too. As a voracious reader, narrowing their focus on best-selling non-fiction books was even better aligned with myself than before.
This was the product I had been waiting for.
Now, instead of learning random, cool things, I was being exposed to only the most tactical, impactful books that I’d likely not have time to read. I learned how disruptive products work, why good people are divided by politics, and why we are the only species of humans left.
Just like I had done a year ago with Zach, I had found the product I was most passionate about and it was time to ask for the job. A few weeks before program was to end, I asked Nathan to grab dinner.
The Pivotal Moment
We left the office together that night and, before we’d walked even one block, Nathan asked me what I wanted to do after program. I deflected. We had a whole dinner ahead of us and I was afraid I’d learn that there wasn’t a job before we even got the restaurant.
We sat down at my favorite restaurant and ordered apps and beer. I still wasn’t ready to ask. After we had ordered our food, I found myself talking about past Techstars classes. All of a sudden I was saying the same line my mentor shared before:
“I was mentored that the team is never enough, you have to be passionate about the product. Nathan, yours is the product that I’m passionate about, and I’m curious how I might join the team.”
Just like that, it was all out in the world. Two years of hunting for a product that I loved, and this was it. I held my breath.
Nathan said that he was honored, and that he was thinking the same thing. He wanted to give me a job. Hardbound needed help growing, and I could use my storytelling and content skills to increase Hardbound’s reach.
I played it cool, but I was over the moon.
This truly felt like the culmination of my last two years at Techstars. Without a critical piece of mentorship as an associate, the skills I built as product manager, and the misfortune of losing that job, I never would have been ready to say yes, but yes is what I said.
Yes is what I said, but we still had to finish out the program. Nathan went and worked hard on his demo day pitch, while I built video assets. Nathan earned the coveted first pitch on Demo Day. He took the stage just after my opening video fired up the crowd, and he crushed it. You could have heard a pin drop during his speech. I was sitting in the soundbooth so captivated that I forgot to do my job. He finished and the crowd erupted. Me and Joe hugged, and the rest is history.
What’s next for me
It’s now the Monday after program is over, and I’m in charge of growth at Hardbound. It’s time to get to work. If you’re still reading this, then congrats, you’re done.
Now, go sign up for Hardbound :)
PS — Want to follow along with our journey? Follow me on twitter.