An Interview with David Cohen, Techstars Founder and Managing Partner
David Cohen is Founder and Managing Partner of Techstars, which operates 47 mentorship-driven accelerator programs around the world and invests in nearly 500 startups annually. Prior to Techstars, Mr. Cohen was the Founder and CEO of earFeeder, a music service which was sold to SonicSwap, a co-founder of Pinpoint Technologies, which was acquired by ZOLL Medical Corporation, and an engineering manager at Automated Dispatch Services. Mr. Cohen’s investments have created over $100 billion in total market cap and include Uber, Twilio, and SendGrid. Among other board positions, he serves as an advisor to the University of Colorado’s Computer Science Department, Silicon Flatirons, and Venture Capital in the Rockies. He was formerly on the board of Techstars graduate SendGrid, a publicly-traded, cloud-based email infrastructure service provider. In 2010, he co-wrote and published Do More Faster: Techstars Lessons to Accelerate Your Startup with Brad Feld.
The Politic: In No Vision, All Drive, your co-founder David Brown explains, “Both my parents were extremely liberal, socially conscious activists… I am the black sheep of the family.” Were you also the black sheep in your family?
David Cohen: My father was an entrepreneur who had a Certified Public Accounting firm with maybe 30 or 40 employees. As a kid, I was always around that business. I did grow up around entrepreneurship, though not scalable entrepreneurship. His firm was more service providing than high growth. But I worked in that office when I was young, and I knew that my dad had created that firm and created those jobs.
On your blog, you write: “[My father] taught me how to play at a beautiful tennis club that he helped build with a bunch of other families.” Did you view him building that tennis court as entrepreneurial at the time?
Really, my parents were one of 25 families that got together to build that tennis club. It was another form of entrepreneurship in that it was creating an environment out of something that they were very passionate about. They loved playing tennis, so they created a tennis club. That might be why enterprise is like creation–it’s a very similar kind of idea, and that was the pervasive sound in our house.
When did you figure out that you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
I had all of that in my background, but I didn’t know that I was born to be an entrepreneur until I got my first job. I like to say I’m one-for-one on job interviews. So, I went to work with somebody and then said, “eh,” and I left. It became kind of obvious to me in hindsight that building companies was a form of creation and art.
Was tech always your game?
I grew up as a techie and a geek. I fell in love with technology, especially the Apple II. I remember my parents making me buy 50 percent of that Apple II, which was quite expensive, so I was saving up for a long time. They bought the other half, because the rule in my family was always that you had to pay for half of whatever you were saving up for, whether that was a bike or a computer.
That must’ve been near the time that Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) were taking off. Were you busy running your own BBS and setting up phone lines and all that?
We did all of the early BBS stuff, including phreaking the phone system and finding out how to do long distance calls for free using pre-internet connectivity between different computers. I remember wiring up my Apple II to a photo-resistor through the game port and putting it on the door to my room as a kid. When I got back, I could tell if anyone had entered my room. You know–I just found applications of tech early and learned how to program early. It’s kind of amazing that you could basically get free phone calls just by dialing phone systems which had been compromised or whatever. I never really cared about how it worked, but I viewed it as part of the infrastructure for communicating. When the internet came along, people who had been phreaking understood the power of the global network.
That was such an interesting era. I just read Bruce Sterling’s The Hacker Crackdown, which I thought was excellent.
I’ll give you another one: The Cuckoo’s Egg (1989) by Clifford Stoll. It’s basically the story of a hacker who managed to compromise the Berkeley Lab’s computer systems. Stoll (a systems administrator at the Berkeley Labs) and others chased the hacker down in Germany, even though they had so little tech back then to figure these things out. It’s a true story of tracking down a foreign hacker early on. They were printing out reams of paper and transcripts to find him.
Switching up a bit–could you talk about Automated Dispatch Services (ADS)?
ADS was my first job, and that’s where I met David Brown, who I’ve been doing business with for 30 years now. Really, I was just a programmer writing some code. I remember when I applied for that job, it was through a database technology called “Paradox” that was made by Borland. Paradox had its own programming language associated with it, and I told ADS, “Yeah–I know all that.” I added it to my resume, but of course, I didn’t know any Paradox. I remember sitting in a bookstore the night before the interview reading a book on it so that I could speak intelligently. In any case, I got the job. I was programming, and then I got promoted to manage the engineering team of 10 to 15 people. We ultimately sort of left that company to essentially ‘un-suck’ what we were doing.
What exactly were you programming?
A lot of organizations find themselves in the middle of a problem–in this case, dispatching ambulances as a service–and they outsource the operation. So, we built some software to help with ambulance dispatching. Ultimately, we left ADS to start what would become Pinpoint Technologies and do ADS’ job better.
Did that piss ADS off?
I think you manage that. That’s part of the story David Brown wrote about, where we slowly took over tech support for the older Disk Operated Systems (DOS). It wasn’t directly competitive with ADS, because we were basically building software (a Windows version of EMTrack) that we would then license, while ADS was selling a service. They weren’t selling software for others to use. In fact, we proposed the idea to ADS, but they said no. They didn’t want to engage with it, so we eventually took over ADS’ EMTrack customers. (Later, then-dissatisfied EMTrack customer AID Ambulance backed the team’s computer-aided dispatch system for ambulances, “RightCAD,” which was based in concept on the EMTrack system that Cohen and Brown had developed for ADS.)
As the ambulance dispatch incumbent, was ADS just content with the if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it mentality?
My narrative would be that David and I, and our other co-founder, Bob Durkin, solved the issue a lot faster than ADS was willing to accept. Microsoft Windows 3.1 had just come out and was moving fast. It wasn’t going to be so hard to use software in the future as it was in the past with command lines and ugly green screens. We thought vehicles were going to have GPS in the future. We saw this stuff coming. We tried to pitch it to our boss at the time, but he thought he had a good business going, and selling software just wasn’t what he wanted to do. That’s why there are no hard feelings.
Switching it up again–in all honesty, I tried searching “David Cohen” + “Politics” on Google and just about nothing popped up.
Do you guys intentionally stay out of politics?
I think we view politics as not the place of our company because the company has diverse opinions, though I think the individuals around the company have varying levels of personal engagement and activism. That’s sort of how we think about it: We try not to use our brand to take positions, but individual people at the company are welcome to do so.
In fact, Jared Polis is one of our four co-founders. He was in politics when we co-founded the business with him, but he wasn’t very notable. Then he served five Congressional terms in Colorado (2009 to 2019), and now he’s the governor here. That’s been interesting because he hasn’t been able to engage as much with Techstars. We think he’s a great entrepreneur and a great representative of the entrepreneurial community, but even that we try not to over-promote. So, there may be people with other parties, but Jared is the most visible example.
Tell me about “Random Days.”
I picked up Random Days from Brad Feld who’s one of our co-founders, and that’s how I first met him. I reached out to Brad to share the Techstars idea. I’d never met him, but I was a fan of his blogging. He had a reputation as an investor, and he got me into one of his Random Days. It took four months to get on his schedule, but four months later, I got a meeting with him. I presented the idea of Techstars, and I presented who I was and what I was thinking about it. Brad said he was in and that he would like to invest personally. We literally spent 10 minutes together when he said yes, and I wasn’t even really pitching him. He said, “I’ll invest $50,000 and help you out as long as you’re not a crook or a flake.”
David and I were each investing about $100,000 or something, so really that was a small gesture of wanting to be involved. Of course, he would increase the amount of money over time, but he wanted to work on it a little bit before we publicized that he was involved. Pretty quickly, he called up Jared Polis saying “I just met these two guys. I think you should invest, too.” Jared said, “Great. I’ll invest whatever you’re investing.” He committed even before asking Brad about our idea, because when Brad calls you and says you should invest, you better take the offer and invest before someone else does. So that was an early lesson about the power of networks and trust. That got Jared involved, and then we built our first accelerator.
That means you were sitting on the Techstars idea for at least four months, right? Were you working on it at all during that time?
Yeah, we built a little website and an application form, and we came up with a name. The concept was more or less the same, but it really gained momentum when Brad got involved. He knows all the great entrepreneurs in the country, so he was able to attract people to Boulder where Techstars is headquartered. There’s actually a term people use, “FOB,” which means “Friend of Brad.” That’s because Brad could call up people like Jeff Clavier and get them to come. People would come just because Brad asked, and that gave us a lot of confidence. (Clavier flies out to Boulder midway through the program every year, spends an entire day at Techstars, and visits with each team.)
Mentorship is your motto. Who were yours?
In my life, three people: David Brown, multi-time co-founder, Brad, certainly over the last 13 years, and then my dad, who was always a great mentor to me. Those were the three big mentors who shaped the way I think about business and investing. They shaped my very long-term perspective, where it’s about thinking with a 20-year view of the future instead of a short-term, “what can I get right now?” perspective. Those are the three people I usually think about.
Would you ever consider Techstars: Life Coach Edition™?
Not me, personally. We certainly run into that a lot in the program. I’m much less of the patient, sit-on-the-couch-and-chat person, and I prefer getting things done. I usually bring in friends like Jerry Colonna or Phil McKernan, and there are many other great coaches, too. A lot of the time they’re coming in when things are in a crisis. I never thought of myself as a life coach–more of the business, board member type.
Do you miss the 24-hour startup grind or sleeping in your office?
Yes and no. I’m 51. I’ve done a bunch of that. I miss it at times, but I get that through what I do. If I go three blocks away to our accelerator in Boulder, or to our one in New York or wherever, I can feel that. I’m an investor in 10 companies. We own six-to-ten percent of each of them, so across all of those, we basically own a company. I stay there until one in the morning. I tend to do that when I travel and I’m away from family and can’t have dinner with them. So, when I’m on the road, I find myself back in that place–but what I do now is very diversified, with fractions of a lot of businesses, and that makes more sense than starting one.
Any Techstars founders who’ve amazed you with that kind of relentless work ethic?
That’s an everyday story around entrepreneurship. You could pick any of them. Whether they fail or succeed, it’s mostly like that. Still, I’m careful to not over-glorify the long hours. In the accelerator, we do a three-month pressure chamber, and that’s unsustainable. We tell that to founders at the beginning of the program. We try to get people to recognize that you need balance and harmony between work and personal life.
Interesting. Are you a 4-Hour Workweek kind of guy?
Knowing Tim Ferriss, the guy works way more than that. [Laughing] But it’s a good ambition and a good aspiration for founders, especially as they achieve success and don’t have to run as hard. For me, what I do is a joy. I really enjoy my work, and most people can’t say that, so I feel really lucky to want to work a lot. It’s one of the fun things in my life. Tennis is another one. I don’t want to work four hours, but some people have enough wealth that they want to do that. To me, working is part of staying alive.
Impossible question, but which company have you enjoyed working with most?
Gosh–there’ve been 2000 of them. I had an unforgettable experience with SendGrid way back in 2009. I joined the board very, very early, and I got to stay on the board up until the IPO. I got to see SendGrid go from 3 people in 2009 to ultimately IPO at the New York Stock Exchange in 2017. I got to work with some great inventors and board members. It was a huge learning experience, and it was just totally unique.
On the climate–about five years ago, when the Techstars platform grew large enough that we had 500 companies a year passing through our accelerators, I starting talking about wanting to address big problems in the world. We started launching more programs like the Sustainability Accelerator, the Impact program, and the Future of Longevity Accelerator. Those double bottom line companies are a much higher percentage of the program now, and we’d like to see even more of that–a little less FinTech and advertising, and more food and water sustainability.