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Paul Berberian on the “addictive” nature of mentoring

Give First podcast.

May 24

How did Sphero CEO Paul Berberian make the number one toy in the world? Sphero got to make the BB8 toy robot because of a connection made during a Techstars accelerator. That’s the power of the network. Hear him tell that story, and more.

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Hi, everyone. This is David Cohen, and I'm here with my amazing co host, Brad Feld. Hey, Brad! And this is the gift first podcast in the start of world, Give first means simply trying to help anyone, especially entrepreneurs without any expectation of getting anything back. So we'll be talking to mentors and founders about what gives first looks like in action and how it makes great entrepreneurship possible. Here's what the lawyers make me say. Brad and I are having personal discussions, and these are our personal opinions that are represented here. They don't represent the opinion of Techstars or the Founder Group or any other group. Our conversations are just for informational learning purposes, including any mentions of securities or funds.

Certain of our own funds may own these securities, but please, no, we're not giving any legal business investment for tax advice, and anything on the podcast is not intended to be used by any investor to make investment decisions. Our guest today is Paul Barbarian. Paul is currently the CEO at Spiro Paul. We wanted to welcome you to the show and see if you tell us a little bit about your origin story

What was Paul Berberian's first contact with entrepreneurship?

Paul Berberian grew up in Los Angeles, California. His father was an immigrant to the United States, originally from Beirut, Lebanon. He spoke English as his six language and he was the typical American rags-to-riches story; hard-working, running a bunch of little businesses. Paul grew up working for all of his dad's little companies.

They made liniments for professional race horses, sold used pinball machines, had a diner, made hand lotion for emergency medical kits and even made the stuff that numbs your gum before a dentist gives you the novocaine.

They were not great at running those businesses, but they would buy them along with the whole building, and use the business's cash flow to pay for the mortgage, eventually owning a bunch of buildings in Southern California.

in your background. Yeah, you bet. Thanks for Thanks for having me. So I grew up in, uh, Los Angeles, California, passing in California. And my father was a Nimah Grint, United States. He came from Beirut, Lebanon. He spoke English. That's his sixth language. And he was the typical American rags to riches story. Hardworking had a bunch of little businesses.

And I grew up in those little businesses. He wasn't into American sports, you know, football or baseball, Waas. I would work in all of his little company, so we made ligaments for professional race horses. We sold used pinball machines. We had a diner, we made hand lotion for emergency medical kids. And we made most importantly, the stuff that numbs your gum before they stick in the needle for the Novocaine. For Dennis, it's important eso a bunch of really cool businesses, and I was always fascinated with him, But my father hated sales and marketing.

He would buy the businesses, uh, and run them until they stop running. But he would always buy one with the building and used the cash flow to pay for the mortgage. And at the end of several decades of doing that we had a bunch of little buildings around Southern California, and that's how he made his wealth. But I was always fascinated with the businesses in the one to market them and build them up in innovate. And so I did a brief stint in the Air Force. I went to the Air Force Academy and I got out and I went right into doing what My father wouldn't let me dio when I was working in those businesses as a teenager, and I've had a Siri's of startups somewhere, Bootstrapped one. My father helped me buy right out of the Air Force, which, of course, had a building and it was making plastic badge is like, Hello,

my name is Paul. Welcome, Thio. The supermarket. That's a It's


a shitty business. Hopefully, they didn't all say, Paul,

What was Paul Berberian's first exit?

A company called link VTC, a video conferencing software, which he grew from nothing and sold within two years.

No, no, If they did, that would have been. I would have been really bad. Batch Maker didn't make a lot of money there, but I I basically gave it away to my cousin. And then I started another company called Link VTC, which is in video conferencing, and that was a bootstrap business and we grew it from nothing and sold it within two years on. It was essentially like the modern day video conferencing service is of blue jeans. Except it was back in the nineties. Early nineties invented another company called Rain Dance Communications, which ultimately went public. Brad was our first investor, and we went public right after the dot com crash of 2000. Absolutely horrific experience.

But we managed through it, and that company ultimately sold in 2006. I start another company, 2005 was a roll up in the mystery shopping space, started it and then basically became a board member, and my partner became CEO. And that company sold a couple years ago, then had a couple of failures back to back. One was in the child novelty business. Kind of like a lava lamp meets photo sharing meets a yeti on Mount Everest. Sounds like a that


something you should feel. It failed, but nowhere near the weirdest description of Start up


over Yeah, s o that one failed. And then I did solar panel company cause they had to do something serious and I couldn't raise a dime after 100 meetings. And then I ended up its hero, which I came to by way of techstars.

What is Sphero?

Sphero makes robotic products focused on getting kids interested in coding through stem based education. They sell to schools around the world and are currently the number one robot used in schools K through 8. Students use Sphero robots to bring their lessons to life.

All right, you're gonna be excited, Paul, tell us a little bit about Spiro

What is Sphero?

Sphero makes robotic products focused on getting kids interested in coding through stem based education. They sell to schools around the world and are currently the number one robot used in schools K through 8. Students use Sphero robots to bring their lessons to life.

Spero makes robotic products, and we really focus on getting kids interested in coding through stem and steam based education. So we sell the schools around the world. We're the number one robot used in classrooms K through eight to teach. Kids not only had a code, but how do you apply code in their lives to make something awesome happened. So whether they're learning a new math lesson or they're trying to x do something in the art class, they can use our robots to bring those lessons to life. Well, we met


in 1996 shortly after I moved here, when you were still running Link vtc before was acquired. And you're 10 or so. Years later, we started techstars, and you get involved in techstars. Talk about what you remember about the beginning of techstars and what your involvement techstars has been since.


So I have a very specific memory around, uh, starting of techstars. I remember I got an introduction. I believe from you. Hey, you should meet with David Cohen. He's doing this interesting accelerator program I go is that, like all the incubators that didn't work, he goes, well, he's got a different approach. He should talk to him and we met at Panera. It was a nice spring day and he said, I'm raising money and I have this idea to be to start this accelerated program that's driven by mentors on you asked me to invest, and I like I said, No,

I don't I don't have any money to invest, But I'd be happy to be a mentor. And you said, Well, that's great. That's fantastic. Uh, I just showed up at the first meeting because, um, it seemed like a nice guy, and, um, it seemed like a cool program, and, uh, one thing led to another, and it was actually pretty addictive to be part of that experience.


So I played the big ask small ass trick on Paul. Could you get the money? But then you feel obligated to give something else like an inter ship? Yeah, unfortunately, was may be fun for you,


You know, if it was really fun, it was


really fun. So the show get first. We like to talk about experiences of mentorship because we feel like a lot of people really get that give first experience. Three mentorship either something they've learned from someone or a way that they've been able to help someone else. Curious if you can think about maybe the biggest lesson that you've learned about being a mentor and trying to help someone else,


So I have. I have to kind of really big, um, things that click in my mind when it comes to being a mentor. The first is, uh, it really doesn't take a lot of energy, right? So, um, I don't mean that is if it's trivial, it just means it's It's actually pretty easy to be a mentor and to have a positive impact on someone's life. Um, it's just being honest and you to listen and to share your experiences that hopefully someone can benefit from that. Um, and the reason why I share that is I've had people come back to me said, Hey,

you know, you talk to me three years ago and you said something and was impactful and I go, I don't I don't know who you are. You sure it was me who talked to you goes, Yeah, we met at this place and they have to go through this really long process to describe where we met. And then finally, my memory will kind of dig in and and it's it's amazing how something so simple and so small could have an impact on someone's life and effect. Second thing I I reflect on about mentorship is there are often times where I'm mentoring. Ah, Young, start up in there and I'm struggling in my own business with some challenging things and they're doing something that just doesn't jive with me. And they're having success and they don't realize like while they're talking about something they're doing and there talk to me as a mentor, I'm like, secretly taking melt like Oh my gosh, look what they're able to do with,

you know, you know, to match sticks in a piece of bubble gum and you know, we're going to spend, you know, $100,000 trying to do something that won't be nearly as effective. And so I've I've I've had numerous experiences like that where the scrappy nature of a startup, uh, you kind of lose touch with as you build the business, and sometimes it's great to have that Touchstone and see what young people are doing. Um, so I get to get a lot out of it.


It's funny. I hear that a lot, that I'm trying to help someone that actually it's a way for me to learn. And so you're sort of already getting back from just trying to be helpful in that way, When one of the most powerful experiences of my own life was the recognition that as a mentor, the really great mentor, mentee relationships were ones where, as a mentor, I learned as much from the mentee as a mentee learned from May. That's what you're describing. Is that that you know, people say, Why should I bother mentoring? And the answer is, if you do a good job, you rushman will learn a lot more. Yeah,

and so there is some element of it. It's very powerful from that direction. Well, think back in your career as far back as you can remember. Maybe something early on, where a specific example where maybe someone gave you some advice and it really changed a lot for you. Is there something that someone shared with you that changed how you think about business Early on,


I've been reflecting on this X. I know what's coming here today, and and Jim knows this individual. Jack Tankersley. Jack Tankersley was one of the early Colorado legend venture capitalists, any still as he's still on active venture capitalist, and he when we first moved the Colorado back in 1994 and then we ultimately were approached to sell our company. In 1995 we met Jack Tankersley and his partner, Steve Holt's dead at Centennial Funds, and we were faced with potentially selling her company or taking money from them. And you know, Jack, you know, it could have been very selfish at that moment, saying, You know, let's put some money into your business.

Let's grow build something big And he approached it from a different perspective. He didn't approach from a business perspective. He had a dialogue with May and with my partners and just kind of a very personal ways is like married. Do you have a mortgage? Do you have any debt? You find out we all have young kids. We all are saddled with a incredible amount of debt because we put all our hearts and souls and our credit cards into the business. And, you know, he basically said you guys were smart. You're gonna do this many times in your life and come see me after you sell your company and put some money in the bank because you're gonna be a much better entrepreneur after your first, you know, exit in your success. And, you know, that may not sound like a terrible like Oh,

that's amazing piece of advice. But it was a very profound piece of advice at that time because I never thought of myself of doing this multiple times. And here's someone who says I'll be there the next time. And it it made me think about my career. You know, I was 28 29 at the time. Maybe think about my career as the beginning of an arc, right? I'm gonna I'm gonna be doing a lot of different things in my life, and it's okay, toe let go at this time of something that was my baby. And it's okay to think about think about the next thing. Um, I think many first time entrepreneurs because that was really the first real business I had. You know, the badge business was that was easy to let go because badges, But


we don't need no stinking


badges. We don't need them. I don't know. I hope a lot of your guests listeners


will get that. They always get my humor like 100% of the time 100%. But


you become attached to something, and it's it's okay to kind of


move on. There's also that relationship piece right where he was saying, I'll be there to Exactly


And that was It was it was really powerful and, you know, he waas He was an investor in our next round, and there were a couple of pivotal times over the course of our next business, which became rain dance, where he was there again and offering sage advice. So he had a big impact on shaping me as an entrepreneur, and he


probably doesn't know that we will make sure he hears this jacket, somebody who are also consider a mentor of mine. Fine was somebody met very early in my own personal journey as an investor, and I learned an enormous amount from him in the first you know, 345 years of my own investing both with investments that we did together, but in just talking to him and getting feedback from and listening to him. And he's a great example of somebody who is very invested in the relationship and less focused on optimizing for the transaction.


Yeah, he really is just a you know, you know all about the people.


So you've had tons of ups and downs in your career and lots of fascinating things have been involved. It reflect on and talk about one of the amazing experiences positive experiences that you had. Something that religious or the sticks in your mind is a magical moment. I


guess I will reflect on one that's pretty. Recent people may know of it, were involved with the TechStars program with the Walt Disney Company. Was a partnership that back in 2000 and 14 and 15 and we were partnered up with mentors, you know, from the executive Walt Disney Company, and one of them was Bob Iger, who met with all of the teams. And so I remember meeting with Bob Iger. You know, we had each had 11 minutes with him, and in those 11 minutes he shows up. And there's this new movie coming out called Star Wars, and it hadn't been out, and a new movie from Charlotte's hadn't been around for over 10 years. And so he sits down and me says, Hey,

I know everything about you guys. We got a short amount of time But let me show you something And he pulls out his iPhone and he shows us this new character that looks a lot like the product we were building at the time, which was a robot ball. And he says, Can you can you guys make this into a toy? And of course, we said, Yeah, of course we can do that, Um and that's the kind of origin story behind BB eight. But the, uh and then we went on to make BB eight and, uh, start. Where's the the successful movie? And we were the number one toy in the world.

But there was a moment in time, a very specific moment in time where there is an event in New York City. At the Disney store, where people were lining up side outside the store at midnight to go by deviate when it first came on sale and the line went around the block and I'm there, you know, the kind of guy gets to be the CEO and announce it, and I literally was swarmed in Times Square. You know, I felt like a rock star at that moment in time, I realized it was like, This is probably just a very brief moment in time. It's not gonna be here forever. But at that moment in time, I was, um It was a pretty special moment. Um, you know what that was?


That was a fantastic moment. Maybe the advertising, this Bob Iger was gonna be there. Think they know? I don't know. I think it was BB eight. Right? It was There was a lot of folks dressed up


by storm troopers and Darth Vader. And


people are crazy though they are, but that was a pretty magical time. Pretty awesome story. The podcast is give first in a nutshell. What is give first mean to you in action?


Um, well, very specifically, I pretty much always kind of respond when someone reaches out, you know, with the genuine request like, Hey, can you give me some advice, but at a more philosophical level, I truly believe maybe I got this for my father. I truly believe that I have a very fortunate life, not because of all the wonderful things I have done. I have a fortunate life because of all the wonderful things that you know thousands of people have done before me and I'm kind of riding on top of their shoulders and very specifically, you know, all the hard work that my family did to come over to the United States and create a life for us in this country. It's really important to be there for those that that, you know,

I could use a little bit of help. And it's not about, you know, giving gobs of money. It's more about just cheering people on and and sharing your experiences, so hopefully they can. They could make wiser decisions for their lives.


It's really interesting to hear you talk about it sort of almost a generational way, like you feel like I


think it is generational. I don't think it's a you know, It could be generational from one techstars class of the next, which is only like you know, every five minutes because there's so many texts or classes. But but it could be, you know, your father to son, too. You know my child. But I always think there's this. There's a cycle in business. There's a cycle in schooling. There's a cycle in life that, you know, I helped that grads for my, you know,

for my school or my daughter's helping kids who came from her high school who are thinking about moving to Los Angeles, and she will always say, Crash at my place. You're from my high school. Um so I think there's I think that's just part of who we are, right? We we kind of look at our lives is like I've accomplished this. Anyone who's doing what I did, I should help


them move forward. What shift into, Uh, uh, quick fire round. Do Cem questions with each question. Just a senator to quick answer. We love Harry stuffings. We love his show 20 minute PC, totally ripping this off. We like to say that every time because it's it's fun to do, but just rapid fire. Yeah, I did one of his show on way back when all right. The favorite book that you've read in the last year


I read was an audio book, and I just finish. It was called Power Moves by Adam Grant, where he is interviewing people at Davos. Talking about power in the section where he interviews women leaders is absolutely powerful, and I'm gonna go in for 13 seconds more because one of the most powerful things out of that book was, the women leader said their success was because a man decided to mentor them so that they could kind of, you know, elevate their career. And it could be another woman, too. But the fact is that if we want to see women in more powerful positions, we have to commit to mentorship so that they can be successful. We can'tjust only go out to lunch with the guys,


the favorite charity that you've supported in the past


on why, so that my favorite charity eyes the community foundation, you know, in the community foundation allows you to kind of give once at a large amount ending, then give to a bunch of smaller entities over time


a new start up. Maybe people should check out that you've heard about. Recently,


I mentored goalie in the most recent Techstars class, and I think what they're doing to help kids stay focused and get their lives in order


is awesome. A city that everybody listening has to visit Hong Kong. Hong Kong. Awesome, Paul, Thanks so much for being on the show with us to appreciate it. Thank you. You can always learn more about what's going on here. A techstars by checking out techstars dot com on the Web or find us at TechStars on Twitter or your favorite social, and don't forget to give first.

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