One of the core habits I think initially led me to become an entrepreneur and continues to make me productive in my ventures is the habit of questioning everything.”
David Mandell is Co-founder and CEO of PivotDesk, a TechStars Boulder 2012 company that helps find space for growing businesses. Having served as a TechStars mentor since the start, he has entrepreneurial experience that runs the spectrum from small, start-up organizations to large multinational corporations. David is also the managing partner at VentureVoodoo partners, a consulting firm specializing in brand management for startup organizations.
Where did the idea for come from?
I noticed the pain point from both companies in need of office space and from those that had too much . Throughout my years as both an entrepreneur and a TechStars mentor, I’ve experienced how painful the process is for finding a good home for your business. At one point, I was doing some consulting work for a business in Denver where I spent most days seated next to the CFO. The company had somewhat recently signed a new lease for office space. With expansion plans looming, they had signed a larger space than their team could fill at the time — and that meant they were currently affording a lot of unused space. This was especially painful for the CFO who watched every dollar go out the door. I asked why he didn’t rent the space out temporarily (I had a number of friends looking for a few desks in the neighborhood) and he said he’d love to but he didn’t want to deal with the hassle of finding, negotiating, billing and hosting businesses in their space. And he was right — there’s a lot that goes into it and it’s typically a huge distraction from getting your actual job done. But between the smaller businesses looking for space to set up shop and all of the businesses in this CFO’s position, it didn’t make sense that it had to be this difficult. So I set out to create a solution and it was PivotDesk.
How do you bring ideas to life?
For me, the most critical aspect to bringing an idea to life is conversation. What I mean by that is that an idea in your head is generally far more immature than it could be. There’s always potential but it needs to be molded. I take great care to mold my ideas by running them by my network before moving to the execution stage. In doing so, I have a chance to work out the kinks. By the time I’ve circulated by idea to the people I trust (both within and outside of the company), they’ve helped me rid the concept of most of its flaws and they often help me see a clear path to the execution of the idea. I’m a huge advocate of building a supportive network to voice your ideas to and I leverage my own regularly for this purpose.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
This may sound a bit morbid, but lately it’s the talk about the burning Unicorns that interests me. It’s not that I want to see promising businesses fail. What grabs my attention is the result of their struggles. It puts a message out there that success is not all about crazy valuations no matter how much buzz there is in the media about the businesses that receive them. The fact is, they’re inflated and they aren’t a guarantee you’ll succeed. In some cases, they’re a speed bump as they put you in a position to live up to insane feats without a clear plan as to how you’ll achieve them. So, as the media adjusts to cover the struggles Unicorns are facing, we see a more realistic picture of the way business works. And it sets an example for earlier stage businesses and their founders to focus on implementing the foundations that will drive their businesses no matter the amount of VC cash they may happen upon.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
One of the core habits I think initially led me to become an entrepreneur and continues to make me productive in my ventures is the habit of questioning everything. I have a habit of looking at a status quo and immediately asking if it could be different (and ideally better). PivotDesk was born as a result of this. Real estate was not a passion of mine — I was not an expert in office space. But I saw an existing process and questioned it. The same goes for more minute things like the processes we use to execute our work at PivotDesk. I see a process and think there’s likely a way to improve it. As a result, we’re constantly optimizing.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Mentors. Surround yourself with them and in the case where you can mentor someone else, do. The life of a founder can be a stressful, lonely road. It’s less so when you have core people you can depend on who will invest their mindshare in the problem you’re trying to solve. They help reassure you that you’re headed in the right direction and, better yet, they force you to put on the brakes when you may be off course. Maybe more importantly, they stop you from feeling crazy. And this goes beyond founders. I recommend my entire team dedicate time out of their week to meet with people on their career path and outside of it. It’s the best learning experience I can give them. As far as being a mentor yourself, I’d say helping other people grow their business has been one of the most eye opening experiences I’ve had. You’ll learn a lot about yourself, have the opportunity to solve problems outside of your day-to-day and have the gratitude of your mentees who will find your support invaluable.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.
Give first. Brad Feld said it best: “In order to give before you get, adopt a philosophy of helping others without an expectation of what you are going to get back. It’s not altruistic – you do expect to get things in return – but you don’t set up the relationship to be a transactional one.” We leverage the give first philosophy across most aspects of our business. I’ll give you a very specific example of how we apply this to shape a strategy. We’re early stage and without a massive budget to help propel us forward. That means when it comes to getting the word out there about PivotDesk, we have to get creative. Rather than throw dollars out the door on your typical marketing strategy, we spend a great deal of time crafting relationships with people and businesses that deal with our core audience. We do so by offering our help. We find out how we can help distribute their brand, if we can provide education for their audience and/or how we can partner on co-promotion opportunities. In all cases, we are sure to provide their business and their audience with value before asking any favors on our behalf. As a result, we come away with a number of advocates and the ability to get in front of a sizable audience that would have otherwise cost us an arm and a leg. When it comes to our audience, I do my best to be as transparent about our business as possible so that growing businesses can leverage our learnings and avoid making the same mistakes themselves. The fact is, we all go through a lot of the same shit, we’re just not sharing it. For many of us who are in the trenches, there is this feeling that we’re in it alone and we’re not. I started our blog, Been There, Done That, to help change that.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I’ll do you one better. The best purchase I’d made recently was the $10 I spent on a blue wig. I’m sure that sounds strange so let me explain… The PivotDesk team is distributed across the country. Getting us all together is time consuming and costly, but vital to our culture. Recently, we all met up in Breckenridge, Colorado for a 2 day ski retreat. Our team building activity for the evening was a lip sync contest. I had a few goals for the contest – have fun and create some memories. As the CEO, I knew that it was important for me to set the tone so I kicked off the night with my rendition of Christina Aguilera’s Beautiful clad in my brand new long haired, blue wig. As you can imagine, my team found it quite entertaining. Ultimately, it led to people shedding their inhibitions and an incredible night of performances across the board.
What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?
We use a ton of different tools, and we’re constantly testing new ones. Our current favorites:
Slack: It’s been a real life-saver for us as we have teams across geographies. In addition, we integrate a lot of tools into it (Salesforce, Twitter, social feed, proprietary backend systems), and it’s our first stop for all internal information.
AWeber: For us, communicating with our prospects via email is key but we’re still in the early stages of working out an official email marketing strategy. Aweber allows us to execute and optimize while we get closer to our goals at a fraction of the cost of most email tools.
Festify: We love playing background music in the office, and Festify allows our remote team to experience the same musical vibe as our HQ. We use Festify to build and share office playlists collaboratively, and it really builds a feeling of camaraderie. It’s easy to add songs from Spotify, and you can vote your favorite songs up the playlist.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Venture Deals by Jason Mendelson and Brad Feld. I am not a huge fan of business books typically, but this one is worth it. I mentor a ton of companies, and valuation is one of the topics that I’m ALWAYS asked about when I talk to new founders or people thinking about starting a business — the magic (or lack thereof) behind setting valuations for early stage companies.
What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?
Brad Feld and Dee Hock. I admire both of their transparent, human approaches to business.