I have been investing in startups for eight years now. When I started, I said yes to most every request I received to “give first”. I spoke on panels, met with entrepreneurs seeking feedback, said yes to every person who wanted to pick my brain, etc.
I did this for two reasons. I genuinely like being helpful, so it was fulfilling and fun. It also just seemed to be what was expected. Boulder is a very generous town. Two of the biggest proponents of “giving before you get” in our industry – the Foundry Group and Techstars – are based here. Foundry’s Brad Feld is literally writing the book on giving first.
I gave first without question for almost five years. It came back to me in spades. I don’t regret it, and I think it was exactly the right thing for me to do at the time. But then….it just got to be too much. The volume of requests grew exponentially. Every time I said yes to something, it would result in another request. I told myself that I could learn to be more efficient and do more faster, but it took a serious toll on my health and family. It also stopped being effective. I was diluting my focus. I stopped bringing my full self to my meetings. I was no longer operating in my zone of genius.
I started saying no a lot more, but it still wasn’t enough. I needed to do something a little more drastic. I took four months to try an experiment. I only committed to one meeting per day (which, bonus, I happened to do while skiing). It was transformative. You can read about why here.
I learned so much about myself and the way I want to operate going forward. The experiment and resulting learning left me happier, healthier, and far more effective than I have ever been. I am giving first by focusing on select opportunities within my zone of genius. Because of the volume of give-first requests I receive, this means that I say “no” to 99% of the time. This is emotionally taxing, but I try to view each no as a yes to something else – my family, myself, the areas in which my genius can actually move the needle, and the lofty goals we’ve set at MergeLane.
Again, I am so thankful for the time I spent giving first and the example set by the Give First proponents who came before me. Thanks to the Give First movement, we now have a global army of people giving first through thousands of programs, events and networks to support entrepreneurs. However, this also means that the number of requests to entrepreneurs, investors and mentors to speak on panels, attend events, meet for coffee, etc. has increased by at least ten-fold. This combined with our always-on, smartphone-addicted, 24-hour news culture makes it harder to stay focused than ever before. The number one challenge I hear from entrepreneurs and startup mentors and investors is their struggle to find time for deep work.
I've been thinking about this a lot lately. I think examples of people who can stay focused and give first without giving too much of themselves is what our ecosystem most needs right now. I think we are most in need of people who don't apologize for unanswered emails and "nos" to give first requests, or start every correspondence with "sorry for the delay". Rather, I am hoping we can have more voices openly talking about how they have managed to stay focused and shift from reactively saying "yes" to emails and requests to proactively saying "yes" to a select few areas in which they can actually make an impact.
Going forward, I am hoping to give first by trying this approach. I have chosen four areas in which I can make the most impact and try my best to stay focused on those initiatives. I will try to share those focuses and priorities with my network, and talk openly about the good and the bad effects of saying “no” 99% of the time. I am going to try to shake the guilt I feel for the emails I don’t answer, or the times I say “no” to requests to give first, and shift my consciousness to focus on opportunities most in line with my zone of genius.
Does this mean that I want to stop receiving requests to give first? Absolutely not. It just means that I am going to be more likely to say yes to requests that are in line with my three to four priority areas. You can read about those here. Giving first is and will continue to be something I believe in, I am just trying a different approach.
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I gave first without question for almost five years. It came back to me in spades. I don’t regret it, and I think it was exactly the right thing for me to do at the time. But then….it just got to be too much.
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