David Cohen gets a kick out of hearing “GiveFirst,” an oft-repeated phrase that can be traced back to Techstars, the Boulder technology accelerator he co-founded in 2006.
“Someone pointed out a thread to me about Denver Startup Week, and the value of ‘GiveFirst,’ and it never mentioned us or Techstars. And I thought, ‘Awesome,’” said Cohen, Techstars’ co-CEO. “When people come to me from all over the world and ask what makes for a perfect startup community it’s this, without any expectation of return.”
Cohen and fellow tech entrepreneurs-turned investors David Brown, Brad Feld and future Colorado Gov.-elect Jared Polis, built the motto into the organization early on, and Techstars continues to promote the concept of giving without expecting a transactional return. It’s the first point in Techstars Code of Conduct: “We give first.”
The origin wasn’t rooted in philanthropy. It was about helping other founders wade through challenges that seasoned entrepreneurs had experienced. Techstars is, after all, for-profit and takes an equity cut of companies that go through its program.
But giving first has become the startup community’s motto, mantra and belief system. Since then, other organizations have sprung up to support the local communities and underserved neighbors impacted by a startup’s growth. And it’s spread beyond the Techstars network.
“GiveFirst continues to be the single most defining characteristic of the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Colorado,” said Sue Heilbronner, co-founder MergeLane in Boulder, which mentors and invests in women-led companies.
“Six months ago, out of the blue, David Cohen sent us an email to ask if he could give a day of his time to MergeLane teams. A day of his time. He was joined by another 20 high-caliber mentors who said ‘yes’ when we asked,” said Heilbronner, who gives back by offering her time to local nonprofits as an emcee, which she said she really enjoys. “What I notice about how GiveFirst works in Colorado is that it is so much more than lip service.”
Since Techstars launched, the accelerator has expanded to nine countries, and more than 1,000 startups have gone through its programs worldwide. The Boulder and Denver areas, too, have become known as startup hubs and for some, the spirit of entrepreneurial generosity is better known here than, say, Silicon Valley.
“GiveFirst is what has made the Denver and Boulder startup community unique,” said Danny Newman, founder of retail tech firm Roximity and who was part of the early startup scene in Denver. “The concept has certainly spread, but the ethos is what has kept our community supportive and strong. I think it’s what has attracted new people to the area and most people that have grown up in our ecosystem are living it everyday. I could be wrong, but I only seeing it strengthening as the community grows.”
Yoav Lurie, CEO and founder of Simple Energy, has #GiveFirst in his Twitter profile not just because the company graduated from Techstars. In 2015, Lurie said the company was running out of money and had “less than three weeks of cash.” He reached out to Feld on a Friday.
“He (Feld) cleared his calendar the following Monday and helped us map out a plan in a matter of hours that would prove to turn the company around. We’ve grown the company by 10 times and have done so profitably,” said Lurie, whose company partners with power companies to help customers better understand how energy is used and can be conserved.
Feld wasn’t even a board member or investor and still isn’t today.
“He’s helped us become the company we are today as a result of his giving first and there’s never been a clear upside for him, other than cosmic,” Lurie said.
In another example, Lurie said then Gnip CEO Chris Moody reached out to him because he wanted to hire a software engineer, but knew the candidate was more interested in a management role. He encouraged Lurie, who had an opening, to interview the engineer. (Moody sold Gnip to Twitter in 2014 and later joined Feld’s Foundry Group.)
“It was an absolutely crazy thing because of the market for software engineers” was so tight, Lurie said. “And it’s not like (Moody) was an investor in us or had any interest. The only way to say what happened is that it was GiveFirst, not only to us, but to the candidate.”
There is a give-first origin story with Techstars, said Brown, who oversees the accelerator’s global operations. The four founders came together because of relatable experiences in starting tech companies, failing sometimes and financially succeeding other times.
“My goal for the thing was to pay it forward, that’s the term I remember using. Brad Feld had a concept of give before you get. So when Techstars was created, it was a combination of paying it forward and helping other entrepreneurs along. It evolved into hashtag GiveFirst because of Twitter,” Brown said. “The experience of giving first is that you can’t even imagine what comes later, which is why I think we changed it from give before you get. It’s not like I give now and in a year, you’ll give me back. It’s GiveFirst period.”
The motto is still largely a Techstars theme, and many regional offices have their way own of expressing it, like the neon sign at the Los Angeles office, Cohen said. The organization also has a Slack channel dedicated to sharing GiveFirst stories. But it’s not as if this a huge, organized effort, Cohen said.
“The key thing I like to emphasize is we didn’t invent it. It doesn’t belong to us. We’ve been living it as a value and big proponent for startup communities,” Cohen said. “Every once in a while, someone says, ‘You should trademark it.’ But I said no. That’s not the point.”
Outside of Techstars, a nonprofit was created after Rally Software said it wanted to give back to its hometown of Boulder.
Feld, who was on the board of the Community Foundation serving Boulder County, helped create a nonprofit to accept private company pledges of one percent of profits, time or equity back to the community. The organization is now called Pledge 1% Colorado and has partnered with communities in Denver and Northern Colorado. It’s also promoted to all Techstars applicants, director Matt Zwiebel said.
“The full-circle story came back in 2012 or 2013. Rally goes public and their 1 percent turns into just shy of $1.5 million,” Zwiebel said. “They split it in half, so half went to the Community Foundation in Boulder to be granted to the community in the most meaningful way possible. And they also opened up a donor advised fund, which in layman’s terms is a charitable checking account. The foundation holds on to the dollars and the donors, like Rally, can give where they see fit.”
SendGrid, the Techstars email company that went public last year, gives back to the startup community by hosting private workshops, offering office hours to other founders and providing expertise on email marketing. Its employees logged more than 1,000 volunteer hours during its last Community Week program.
As it prepared to go public last year, it joined the Pledge 1% effort. SendGrid recently said it would be acquired by another email company Twilio. But that’s not changing its pledge.
“We’re proud that SendGrid has committed 1 percent of our equity over the next 10 years to help our communities thrive,” co-founder Jose Lopez said in an email.
Zwiebel calls it the “little idea from Boulder that could” because it has gone on to become a template for the national Pledge 1% organization. In Colorado, the nonprofit counts 228 companies statewide that have pledged time, money or equity. Some, like eco-minded bedsheet company Sheets and Giggles in Denver, donate product, while others like Boulder tech company Scaled Agile, match employee volunteerism with a check. Pledge 1% Colorado has raised about $8 million.
Pledge 1% is participating in Tuesday’s Colorado Gives Day, which is going on its ninth year. Aiming to connect Coloradans to 2,500 vetted nonprofits, the annual event takes donations online at ColoradoGives.org.
As Techstars grew, so did the spirit of giving first in other startup communities outside Colorado.
Troy Henikoff, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University near Chicago, visited the Boulder Techstars Demo Day in 2009 because it featured a company run by former students.
While there, he noticed that 25 percent of Techstars graduates involved Chicagoans, even though Chicago was just 1 percent of the U.S. population. But none of the entrepreneurs returned to Illinois. He felt like he had to do something.
“I remember it vividly,” Henikoff said. “We were sitting at a Mexican restaurant in Boulder and said we have to do this in Chicago. … We talked about it (with Cohen and Feld) and they basically said, ‘Listen, we’re too busy. It’s not public yet but we’re going to open in Seattle and New York in the next year. But you should do it.’ We were disappointed, but they said no, no, no, we’ll help you.”
After weekly calls with Cohen and other Techstars advice on how to set it up, he co-founded Excelerate Labs in 2010. Three years later, Techstars acquired Excelerate.
“I do think it’s a great example of GiveFirst because they helped us with no expectation of return,” Henikoff said. “I think it’s a cultural thing. We try to practice GiveFirst all the time. Every Friday I have open office hours. And 99 percent of the time, it’s just a 30-minute conversation.”