Rejection Is A Beginning, Not An End

In 2010, my then-co-founder and I flew to Seattle to participate in “Techstars for a Day.” For those who don’t know, Techstars is a prominent and selective startup accelerator. During “Techstars for a Day,” they host companies they’re considering admitting. It’s an unofficial finalist interview of sorts.

As we flew across the country, we were confident we’d be accepted. After all, we were finalists and we were awesome. How could Techstars not accept us?

To make a long story short, we were wrong; we weren’t awesome, and Techstars did reject us.

My co-founder and I were both pissed because… well… rejection sucks. However, while it felt like a crummy ending to an exciting opportunity at the time, in retrospect, it wasn’t the end of anything. It wasn’t even the end of my relationship with Techstars.

Nine years later, I was invited to be a mentor for companies in the Techstars Raleigh/Durham accelerator. Meeting the new class of Techstars portfolio companies — which I did last week — gave me an opportunity to see the ways in which my own knowledge of entrepreneurship has evolved. For example, here are four ways in which the companies I mentored know more than I did when I was applying to Techstars, and another four things they still need to learn:

4 Things the current Techstars entrepreneurs were better at than me:

  • Introduced themselves with concise explanations: Every company I met introduced themselves by telling me what they did in a few quick sentences that made their basic premise easy to understand. I mention this not just because they’d honed their elevator pitches in ways I wish I had when I was in their position, but also because it took me years to learn the value of explaining things simply, clearly, and directly.
  • Prioritized traction: After explaining what they did, most of the entrepreneurs I met shared stats about how many customers they already had and how many enterprise deals they were busy negotiating. Yes, I was skeptical of their numbers because early companies often misrepresent traction, but at least they knew to talk about it. I didn’t know that when I was at their stage. I was still in a naive “if you build it, they will come” mindset.
  • Pre-meeting research: Most of the companies made a point of referencing something they’d read about me online, which meant they’d taken time to do research before their meetings. In my early days of building companies, I rarely did that, and I’m sure it cost me opportunities.
  • Always follow-up: I’m writing this post within a week of my mentoring sessions and I’ve already heard from most of the companies. They’ve thanked me for my help and asked if they can add me to their regular “progress report” emails. In contrast, I’m still terrible at following up and updating people… just ask my previous investors!

4 Things the current Techstars entrepreneurs still need to learn:

  • Customer acquisition is your product: All the entrepreneurs I met wanted to spend the entire time explaining their products. I had to interrupt them to ask questions about their customer acquisition strategies, and none had good answers. But they had plenty to say about their “amazing” user interfaces and “revolutionary” features. Uggg.
  • The customer wasn’t the user: My personal startup motto is: if the person paying for your product isn’t your end user, it’s a bad business model. And yet, more than half the companies I met were selling to people who weren’t their end users. For example, they’d be pitching a medical device that insurance companies would pay for, doctors would prescribe, and patients would use. While I realize these kinds of models exists (i.e. prescription drugs), they’re particularly challenging and require tons of startup capital..
  • Making it about them instead of their customers: Too many of the entrepreneurs I met wanted to tell me their personal stories. They shared why they were building their companies, how they’d gotten started, and what motivated them to keep working. In contrast, none of them mentioned their customers or their customers’ needs without my asking. That’s selfish. We don’t build startups for ourselves. We build startups for other people.
  • Having too many answers: The entrepreneurs I met answered every question I asked; none of them were willing to say “I don’t know.” They all either believed they knew everything or believed they had to appear as though they knew everything. In either case, they were wrong. As a Techstars applicant, I thought I had to know everything, and I was wrong. As a Techstars mentor, I realize I can’t know everything. A willingness to say “I don’t know” is critical for entrepreneurs because it helps us avoid making the kinds of false assumptions that often kill our companies.

Observations like the ones I’ve described above, and my ability to make them, help me recognize the kinds of things I’ve learned since getting rejected from Techstars. Even if, five minutes from now, someone successfully persuades me I’m wrong about all of the lessons I’ve shared, it doesn’t change or diminish the role my Techstars rejection played in my personal education and growth. Had Techstars not rejected me and my company, all the subsequent events in my entrepreneurial career that followed wouldn’t have happened — I got accepted to a different accelerator, I raised venture from different investors, I hired different employees, I moved to a different city, and so on.

Would I have been happier with the progression of my life and career had I been accepted to Techstars Seattle in 2010? I have no idea. Am I happy with my life and career now? Absolutely.

What that tells me — and hopefully tells anyone reading this — is that, in the moment, a rejection usually feels like something preventing us from reaching our goals. But we shouldn’t let it discourage us. After a bit of time we’ll be able to look back and see how our rejections were the starting points of new paths forward.

This Blog Doesn’t Deserve an A. Do You?

Confession time: I’m bad at blogging. Just look at the dates on my articles. I post as consistently as an MTA train during rush hour.

If that weren’t bad enough, instead of writing concise tutorials and easy-to-follow “how to” guides — the kinds of things that make blogs useful — I tend to write rambling essays about things only I care about.

I bring this up because I believe in the value of taking responsibility for substandard work, especially when I know I’m producing it. In the case of this blog, I know what would make it more successful, but I have priorities in my life that take precedence, and, as a result, the blog isn’t as good as it could be.

In short, it’s not an “A level” blog, and that’s OK. I accept that reality and recognize I’m the cause.

In contrast, as the end of another semester approaches, I’m about to encounter the bi-annual ritual of students refusing to take responsibility for their substandard work.

Or, as I like to describe it…

Hell hath no fury like a student who receives an A-.

I understand why students hate A-minuses (and B-pluses): a “not-quite-an-A” feels like they’re just barely missing out on the grade they wanted, so they place the blame on the grader since the grader could have pushed the grade slightly up to get it passed the admittedly arbitrary cutoff line.

While believing a grade should be raised (or lowered!) regardless of the actual work submitted ignores numerous logistical, educational, and ethical concerns, that’s not what I’m interested in discussing.

Instead, I want to discuss the question of who’s responsible for grades. Specially, I want to know why the instructor is responsible for grades. Yes, we assign grades, but we give grades based on the work our students submit.

In other words, grades are earned, and grading is a descriptive process. By the time I’m assigning grades at the end of a semester, the grades were already determined by the work submitted throughout the semester. But when students don’t get the grades they want, instead of looking inward to ask themselves what they could have done better, they tend to look outward. The result is a handful of emails at the end of every semester either arguing for higher grades, begging for extra credit, or pleading that I’m ruining someone’s life.

I don’t like ruining people’s lives. In fact, I feel terrible when I receive emails implying otherwise. But it doesn’t get me to change a grade, and it doesn’t solve the real problem.

The real problem is that students need to accept that not everything they do is going to be perfect. Sometimes we aren’t as good at things as we want to be. Sometimes we don’t prioritize things as much as we should. And sometimes our lives take unexpected turns and we simply can’t accomplish what we hoped. None of it is “bad,” and none of it is “wrong.” It’s life, and it’s 100% acceptable.

It’s OK to challenge yourself and produce something that isn’t perfect. It’s OK to prioritize some commitments over others and, as a result, produce substandard work. And it’s even OK to try your absolute hardest and still fall short.

Let this blog post be an example. I’ve been revising it for three months, and I’m still not happy with it. It doesn’t explain what I want to convey as ellegantly or clearly as I’d like, and I have plenty more I’d like to write about the topic that I haven’t included. But I’m posting it for the world to read, and every time I get an email questioning a final grade in one of my classes, I’m going to respond by linking here.

While I know this blog post isn’t a perfect response to those emails, I also take full responsibility for its lack of perfection.

Retiring The Doughnut Rule: Why I Began Allowing Phones In Class

When I first began teaching undergrads – 2007-ish, as a grad student – I would boast about what I thought was, at the time, a wildly creative way of removing cell phones as a classroom distraction. I called it the “Doughnut Rule.”

The Doughnut Rule had a prominent place on my syllabus, which read like this:

Cell Phone Policy:

Yes, these days everyone has a cell phone and they’ve become integral components of our lives.  As such, I welcome such technologies in the classroom, but if you have the need to use one (i.e. let it ring, send a text message, take a picture of your neighbor) I ask that you repay the interruption of your fellow students’ educations with enough doughnuts for everyone at the subsequent class meeting.

I got the idea for the Doughnut Rule from someone else who did it with cookies, but I figured cookies weren’t enough of a punishment. Students can fulfill a cookie requirement by stopping into the campus store on their way to class and picking up an over-priced box of Chips Ahoy!. But doughnuts – the Krispy kind or the Dunkin’ kind – require more thought and effort.

Whatever you do, don’t bring those cheap, tiny, store-bought powdered doughnuts. That’s a quick way to earn an F in my class. But I digress…

I would tell my teaching colleagues about the Doughnut Rule as a way to promote my pedagogical brilliance or my classroom management creativity or some other misguided self-delusion that wasn’t true because, back then, I had no idea how to teach anything. Regardless, at the time, I thought the Doughnut Rule, in all its cheeky glory, was an effective solution for limiting class cell phone usage.

To be fair, the rule did minimize cell phone usage. The first time in a semester I called out “You owe the class doughnuts!” to a texting student would usually be the last time I saw a phone in class. However, in retrospect, the Doughnut Rule wasn’t actually punishing students. I was punishing myself. I used the rule to delude myself into thinking I was a better instructor than I actually was. “My students aren’t getting distracted by their phones,” I’d think, “so it must mean they’re paying attention and appreciating my lessons.”

As I’ve gotten more experienced in the classroom, I’ve gotten more lax with my cell phone policy. You might argue it’s because cell phones have become a more common part of everyday life, but, from what I hear, most of my peers are as strict as ever about cell phones. Some are equally strict about laptop usage.

Many teachers – grade school and college – view digital devices as classroom distractions. While they’re not entirely wrong, by blaming the devices themselves, they’re shifting blame to the wrong place.

I know this is true because it’s what I was doing with the Doughnut Rule. While my use of the Doughnut Rule might have been a creative solution to a legitimate problem, it was also a pedagogical cop out. It allowed me to put the blame for distracted students on digital devices. Instead, I should have been asking questions about what I was doing – or not doing – in my lessons that caused student attention to wander.

If something else in my classroom is more engaging than the lesson I’m teaching, that’s not the fault of the thing that’s more engaging, nor is it a problem with my students.

It’s my problem.

It’s my fault.

I need to take responsibility.

Once I recognized the importance I play in whether or not students get distracted by their phones, I retired the Doughnut Rule and removed any sort of formal policy for digital devices in my classrooms. However, I still don’t welcome them. Instead, I’ve learned to use digital devices as a barometer to help me measure the quality of my lessons. When I notice more people paying attention to their Instagram feeds than what I’m discussing, I don’t punish my students; I punish myself. I force myself to sit down after class, review the lesson I taught, and identify ways to improve. And yes, if the lesson was particularly bad and I’m feeling especially depressed about how many students cared more about their phones than me, I might even make myself feel better by eating a doughnut.

Quora: What Makes A Professor’s Lecture Boring?

I write lots of Quora answers. Sometimes, when I particularly enjoy on a question/answer combo, I’ll share it here, too. If you like it, be sure to check out my other Quora answers. Upvotes welcome!


Quora Question: What makes a professor’s lecture boring?

That’s an easy question to answer: Lack of saber toothed tigers.

While you probably don’t think the two are related, the brain’s ability to focus is — like everything else about us — evolutionarily programmed. Since humans didn’t make it this far by honing our ability to sit comfortably in air-conditioned lecture halls while being talked at for an hour by some expert in a tweed sports coat, we shouldn’t be surprised that staying focused in that scenario is basically impossible.

Instead, our fight-or-flight response is highly tuned to continuously check for external stimuli that could suggest the approach of potential dangers. In other words, we’re constantly checking for big cats with razor-sharp teeth that want to eat us.

When sitting in a lecture, your biology makes it impossible for you to pay attention to the professor for more than eight-ish minutes. After that, your hunter-gatherer brain decides he or she isn’t a risk to eat you or otherwise cause you harm. Once that’s determined, your brain starts scanning the room for other potential threats, so it gets easily distracted by, for example, the cough of a 300 lb. deffensive lineman sitting two rows behind you. Be careful: he actually might eat you.

The best teachers understand the biological limitations of human concentration, and they structure their lessons accordingly. Specifically, they know to regularly introduce new stimuli in order to maintain student focus.

For example, including humor in lectures helps keep students engaged. That’s probably why your favorite professors are often the ones that tell jokes or include witty comic strips at regular intervals throughout their powerpoint slides.

Alternately, some professors inject an occasional profanity. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of this tactic because I think it’s lazy, but I’ll admit that dropping an f-bomb in the middle of class is an effective way of getting distracted students to pay attention.

As for me, I like to ask questions and then call on random students for answers. Nothing scares students more than being randomly called on by their teachers. Not even saber-toothed tigers.