Whose Life are You Going to Change?

Posted on Dec 2, 2010 | 93 comments


Many of us have the ability to change the trajectory of other people’s lives.  Sometimes we don’t even realize it. This is a story of one person who had the power to change my life – and did so.  It’s the story of persistence in entrepreneurs.  And it’s the story of “paying it forward.”

The person who changed my life was Cory Van Wolvelaere, who passed away two years ago this week after a long battle with cancer.  I know his life touched many of us that worked with him – in ways he never knew.  In his 53 years he changed the trajectory of lives including mine.

We all have the ability to change the trajectory of the lives of others.  As a VC I’m acutely that a “yes” decision to support an entrepreneur can do just that, yet I only write 2-4 of them per year and maybe another 3-4 as an angel.  But I strive to impact the lives of many more through hours of coaching entrepreneurs, challenging people to be better, making human connections for people or providing timely advice.

I’m not a saint who wakes up every day trying to make the lives of other people better.  I’m not Pollyanna-ish and always altruistic.  But I am conscious that I can have an impact.  I try not to go out to entrepreneur events in LA every night – I have work to get done and a family.  But when I do go and when I speak I make a conscious effort to spend time with every last person who comes up to say hello.  If I’ve already agreed to be out for a night I try to maximize the number of people I can speak to.  I tend to stay until every last person has gotten their questions asked.

If I need to be blunt I am.  Being helpful doesn’t mean telling every person their ideas are great.  Making a difference often means challenging others to make their ideas better, stronger, better thought through.  There is nothing more rewarding then getting the call a year later to say, “You made us think.  We made some changes and things are going better.  Your advice made a difference.”

As an entrepreneur you can change people’s lives, too.  If you’re a pure startup and haven’t raised any money – you might change the life of every person you hire.  I always encourage people to allocate a few extra stock options to those that join super early when your company is risky and they just believed in you.  Sure, you can get away with less, but why?

You can also spend time with a newer startup helping them navigate the world of product management, venture capital or team building.  I’m sure somebody helped you along the way – you can pay it forward.

If you’re at a large corporation, you have the ability to give a startup the first contract they need to break out from the crowd or at least give them their first pilot.  Back an entrepreneur you believe in.  Sure, you can use your size to get a deal that is one-sided, but why?  Why not think win-win?  Why not change somebody’s life?

People need to earn your good will and don’t spend it easily.  But spend it, it comes back to you.  Find just a few people for whom you can make a difference. In small ways or large.  Help a young person get their first job.  Create an internship at your company where one doesn’t exist.  Help somebody negotiate their compensation package, introduce someone to your favorite startup CEO, agree proactively to be a reference client for somebody who didn’t ask.

Give somebody a break because you would have benefited if somebody did that for you.

I started blogging because Brad Feld blogged.  His term sheet series helped me at a time when I needed help.  He asked for nothing.  I thought I’d pay it forward.  It turned into this blog.

Here’s a personal story.  It’s how Cory Van Wolvelaere changed my life:

In 1993, after working at Andersen Consulting for 2.5 years as a software developer I decided I wanted a change.  I had two goals in mind: I wanted to be even more technical than I already was as a developer (I wanted to work on cutting edge stuff, which back then was the Internet – pre World Wide Web browsers) and I wanted to live & work in Europe.  If I could do that while staying at Andersen – great.

The first goal was rooted in childhood – I grew up playing with technology and it has always been my passion.  At Andersen Consulting I had built computer networks and programmed in COBOL.  I wanted to do more of the former, less of the latter.

The Europe goal was shaped by three random things:

  • My father is from South America and his native language is Spanish (although his father was from Romania and escaped oppression there).  I had always regretted that I wasn’t fluent in Spanish and had never developed a relationship with my grandfather because he never learned English. [Years after I had been living in Europe I told my father this regret.  He laughed and told me my grandfather didn't like to speak Spanish."  Huh?  Turns out he mostly spoke Yiddish but I was so young I had always assumed it was Spanish.  True story.]
  • My closest friend from high school, Rob Sowers, had studied abroad in Spain during college.  He came back a changed person – more open, worldly and interesting.  I felt I had missed out on something.
  • My mom organized a trip to take me to France & Israel.  From the moment we arrived at our hotel in Paris I was hooked.  I loved the novelty of it, the architecture, the strange foods, stores, toilets – everything.  And Israel felt like home to me – somewhere familiar.

Each of these important influencers in my life played a part in shaping my desire to expand my horizons and live in Europe yet none of them realized the impact that they had had on me.  I didn’t want to visit 8 countries in 10 days – I wanted to immerse myself in the culture of Europe.  I wanted to work there.  I wanted to study the languages.  I wanted to go native.

So while the rest of my Internet-savvy friends were leaving Andersen Consulting to go work for technology startups – I wanted to choose life.  I had my goal in mind, I just had to find a way to make it happen.

I had come across a guy from the US named Michael Rhattigan who had transfered from the Chicago office to a place called Sophia Antipolis in the south of France (mid way between Nice & Cannes).  It wasn’t Spain (where I had wanted to go) but it didn’t sound like it would suck too bad either ;-) so I began to pepper Mike with questions about how to get out there.

He introduced me to a senior guy from the “network solutions” practice, a Dutchman named Valentijn Bonger.  Yes, we  had a few laughs about his name – hey, we were in our early 20’s ;-) .  Anyway, now that I had my lead I was going to make it happen.  I left an Octel (think email but with voice … yes, that’s what some businesses used before email!) for Valentijn asking when he’d next be in the US.  I knew if I was going to convince him to help me transfer I’d have to make the case in person.

He “Octeled” me back and said he’d be in San Francisco the next month.  I told him it was great because I was going to be there, too.  Well, that is, after I booked airplane tickets to be there just to meet him in person, but that was a small detail I decided not to share with him.  I didn’t want to give him the chance to say, “no.”  I figured if I was to already be in town how could he refuse to give me 30 minutes?  I didn’t have a lot of spare dough back then so I booked cheapie flights, slummed it on a friends couch, and got my 30 minutes with the Bong-man.

“Sorry, Mark, there’s just not a lot of projects in Europe right now.”  The world was just starting to recover from the recession of the early 90’s so they couldn’t afford to bring any more Yanks out to Europe.

For the next year I left Valentijn monthly Octels just “checking in.”  I found out he’d be in the US again so I traveled to San Francisco again and convinced him to have drinks with me.  By then we had a sort of humorous relationship because he knew I was a bit of a pest (a friendly, humorous one) but he knew it was my life dream to work in Europe and that I didn’t take “no” easily.

“Valentijn, what’s it going to take to get you to get you to transfer me to France?”

“Mark, I’m an Associate Partner.  I don’t have the authority or budget to bring you out without selling more projects.  The only person who could carry you on his budget is the lead partner, Cory Van Wolvelaere.”

Fawk.  I had worked Valentijn for a year and now had to start from scratch.  I organized a call with Cory and introduced myself.  He was American who had married a woman from Ireland and they had relocated to the South of France to set up an Internet practice servicing all of the European Andersen Consulting offices.  Whenever an office in Europe sold a project that was too technical for the local staff they brought in the “hit team” from Sophia Antipolis. Tres cool!

He was friendly enough but towed the party line that there wasn’t any work in Europe.  He didn’t know what he was up against.  I started Octeling him frequently to “check in.”

And I worked Mike to find out who else I could talk to from the office in France.  On one set of Octels with Mike I learned that Cory was going to be in Chicago the following Monday.  I found out what flights he was traveling home on and booked airplane tickets that day flying out on Saturday morning and flying back Monday night.  I planned it to fly out at the same time he was leaving and on the same airline – American.  I booked non-refundable tickets.

I left Cory an Octel saying that I heard he might be in Chicago on Monday which was a great coincidence because so was I!  I was going to be in town just for the weekend and Monday, flying out on Monday night on American.  Could he make the time to meet?

By coincidence ;-) he would be flying out around the same time.  He agreed to meet me for 30 minutes before his flight.  I had one shot to make things happen.  I was willing to take the risk for a 30 minute meeting.

I met Cory at a bar in the terminal.  He was a short, affable man with reddish hair, white skin and a disarming midwestern demeanor.  He was a senior partner, I was a peon.  He was so casual with me and treated me like a peer.  He asked about the projects I had worked on, what I wanted to do next and why I wanted to work in Europe.

Then he devastated me.  He told me that he didn’t have the budget to carry me.  He had already sent a bunch of his staff on projects in Argentina & South Africa at super cheap rates just to keep his staff busy.  He didn’t have the work in Europe to carry me.  Sorry.

Gulp.

“Cory, I want to work in Europe.  I’ve been working on a project for 2.5 years where I developed skills building distributed systems over networks.  I worked at the protocol layer and have the right skills for your group.  The economy will pick up and it will be a small investment you would have made in me.  I’ll work my ass off for you.  You won’t regret it.”

“I’m really sorry, Mark.  I wish I could help you.”

“But you can.  You have the power to change my life forever.  I want to know what it’s going to take to get you to say ‘yes’ because that’s why I flew to Chicago.  I came here for this 30 minute moment.”

Silence.  Stupefied silence.

“Cory, what’s it going to take?”

Silence.  I didn’t speak again. I stared into his eyes.

Cory: “Aargh.”  Sigh.  “Errrgh.”

“Oh, OK.  Fine.  You can come.  I have the feeling that I’m never going to hear the end of you until I let you come.  Fine.  You got it.  I hope you’re happy.  Now don’t let me down.”  And he got up, grabbed his bags, told me to Octel the HR manager, Pascale Mineau and waved good bye.

I won’t, Cory.  I won’t let you down.  You didn’t have to give me the chance.  You did.  You moved me to Europe and fulfilled my dreams.  You looked after me when I got there and treated me like a friend, not an employee.  You refused to say “he works for me” you always said, “he works with me.”  I still use that to this day.  You were much older than me but never acted like an old guy.

I actually thought you were an old guy.  I recently did the math and realize you were only 37 years young.  I was 26.  At my age you seemed old.  I only hung out with 20-somethings and I was junior.  I’m now 42 but still forget that I’m not 30.  I’ll bet that’s how you felt.  I try to remember your ways when I spend time with younger guys.  I try not to let it feel like there’s a big age gap.

You helped me get staffed in Rome so I didn’t have to work in Erlangen, Germany.  Whew.  That worked out well for both of us.  I enjoyed our dinners and strolls in the streets of Rome.  And fighting with the local Italian partners.  And sitting next to Errki from Finland who taught me one of my all time favorite swear words, “perkele.”

I won’t let you down.  I can’t help everybody that asks, but I still try when I can.  Where I can “pay it forward” I do.

I moved to Europe for 2 years and moved back home 11 years later.

When I was living in London a woman called me, Cory.  She said that she was desperate to work in Europe for personal reasons.  I helped her transfer when I didn’t have to.  Like you taught me.  She seemed super eager to be there and it wasn’t really that big a hassle for me to help her out.  So I figured WTF.  And I married her 5 years later.  Funny how life turns out.

You made a difference in my life, Cory.   And in the lives of many others, too.  God bless.  Rest in peace.

  • Eric Wood

    Awesome. I didn't see the final twist coming. I didn't realize you met Tania in Europe. I met Danielle there too. That's another interesting story.

    What you call paying it forward I call “being human.” Being a human means we don't always look at the risk reward equation. Sometimes we just get a hunch or believe in someone, and that's enough. The other thing I liked was the aspect of being a mentor. Without mentorship where would we all be?

  • Devin Blase

    I agree with Mr. Lee, my favorite post of them all!

  • Guerrilx

    Wow the power of paying it forward seems like such a novel concept but it can truly be a life saver for some many who lack opportunity. I am suffering from a lack of network and desperately looking for some to share knowledge. This article has just giving me the jilt to keep pushing and working hard to one create my own goodwill and to create a foundation so perhaps I can help a person in my position. Thanks for sharing your story and know that sharing is caring and caring is fundamental to human kind.

  • Alan V

    Mark, I've been reading your blog for quite some time and I've never left a comment before. All I have to say is what an unbelievable, heartwarming, and touching blog post. Pay it forward, indeed.

    Alan

  • Thomas Swalla

    Tremendous post! You do great work, and there are many of us that genuinely appreciate it.

  • http://shr30.blogspot.com Shreenath

    Mark, longtime lurker and now a big fan – I think your heart felt motivation and determination just shines through. And it surely does mean the importance of reaching out and helping – thanks for sharing.

    While I'm a bit more at where you were in seeking opportunities, I do see the importance of making a strong impact.
    I'd love to nab you for a quick advice/chat session if you are ever flying by/through Atlanta

  • Bahadir cambel

    What a great piece of story from your own life. Thanks for sharing Mark!

  • http://www.twitter.com/aainslie Alexander Ainslie (@AAinslie)

    Moving. Soulful. Thanks for sharing that piece of your life.

    You are a Mensch too, just like Cory!

  • http://mixergy.com Andrew Warner

    Where in S. America is your dad from?

  • lucidtyson

    Great post. You probably wouldn't remember, but we met at the Greycroft CEO summit in NY earlier this year and shared a car. Our interactions stuck with me. You were very approachable, sharp and unassuming. you spoke to me as a peer and were genuinely interested in what I was trying to accomplish. As a young, first-time CEO this was remarkable and inconsistent with much of my experience with many of your peers. I dare say, Cory would be proud.

  • http://twitter.com/chrisyeh chrisyeh

    This is a wonderful tribute. Cory would be proud.

    Often times, the ability to help is asymmetrical. I can often help people more than they can help me. By helping them, I'm unlikely to get much future “benefit.” As an angel investor myself, I often joke that it would be more accurate to call myself a free consultant, since I try to provide honest advice to every entrepreneur I meet with, even though I only invest in about 1% of those deals.

    For me, it boils down to the fact that there's no upside to being a jerk. When a person is standing in front of you, why not take the time to listen and do what you can to help? At worst, you might be spending 10% more time than if you issued curt refusals. At best, you might help change a life.

  • http://www.WeGeo.com/ Ken O'Berry

    Wow, what an inspirational story. This made my day. And made me wonder how I can help someone who needs it.

  • Velasusan Park

    extraordinary. It makes reconsider the influence one single person can have in the world.

  • http://twitter.com/BrynYoungblut Bryn Youngblut

    Awesome story Mark. Very touching.

  • http://www.profitero.com Vol

    Hi Mark, this is the most moving post I read in a long time. Your blog is on the top of my reading list when I have a few minutes to read. And in life of founder there are not too many such minutes. Your post took away my current operational hustle and add life-time prospective to what I do now. Incredible that you can do this with a simple story. Your posts change people lives Mark. Keep them coming!
    From European side of the ocean:)
    Vol @ Profitero

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    He grew up on Medellin, Columbia. He moved to the US when he was 23 for his med school residency.

  • http://www.8asians.com John

    Very nice. My friend posted this on FB. I liked the ending! – John

    “'We receive but what we give,' Coleridge write, but I'm not so sure. I have tried to give, not in order to receive in my turn, but simply to give, for I learned long ago that there is no quid pro quo in life, no fair exchange of grief for good fortune, of sympathy expended for comfort received.”

    Responsibility to respond, What one friend owes another
    By Diane Cole
    Excerpted from M.S. (Dec. 1986)
    …Utne Reader, Sept./Oct 1993, p. 84-85.See More

  • http://www.elieseidman.com Elie Seidman

    Touching.

  • cgarb

    Really awesome post Mark. Find myself reading your blog almost every day now – thanks for continuing to write.

  • Josh Webb

    You are exactly right Mark. If you aren't toeing the line (and doing it with class), there is a chance that someone is making a more compelling case in front of you. If you really want what you are seeking, this reality will be unacceptable.

    I think sales (especially early sales) can be a little like this too. If you walk away at the first “no”, you'll never get a “yes”. “No” is easy and it requires relatively little work on the part of the evaluator… “yes” requires thought, followup, and accountability.

    As a person who is trying to accomplish something, the onus is always on you to persist, make the case, and keep your head in the game.

  • Josh Webb

    This post aligns almost creepily with a video I watched today: http://www.wimp.com/lastlectur…/

    It is a little long, but it hits this nail pretty close to the head.

  • B3nr0m

    I totally agree with Jono. Best one yet! So moving and so inspirational. Perseverance! Thank you Mark!

  • http://twitter.com/ebellity Emmanuel Bellity

    Feel like “Bizarro Mark” (http://bit.ly/fZfWRN)
    25 yo French who pushed to get an internship in New York a few years ago
    And my grandfather spoke Ladino (that's like spanish mixed with yiddish, so there you go!)

    Thanks for sharing

  • http://www.twitter.com/renee_berry @renee_berry

    you won me over.

    subscribe.

  • Windo

    Thanks to share the story, “pay it forward” word kinda inspired me ., Am in the startup of a restaurant, need stories, inspiration that can help to build me up, and you did it :D

    Pleasure,
    Windo

  • Ely

    This is a very touching story. We all agreed you were already awesome, but sharing this part of your life takes you to an entire new level.

  • http://www.cscyphers.com/blog scyphers

    You refused to say “he works for me” you always said, “he works with me.” Great way to put it. I will adopt it immediately.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Rohan

    Haha.. Glad you liked it! Mon-Fri typically has one quote a day! And Friday is funny quotes/laugh at yourself day.

    It's great to see you making the effort to reply to all the comments! I clearly have lots to learn.

  • http://www.kirillzubovsky.com Kirill Zubovsky

    I knew you were a great guy ;)
    loved the writing style – concise and to the point, yet has enough vivid details to animate one's imagination. Reading your blog, I feel as if I am reading a good book that never ends. Thank you.

  • http://www.researchandcompare.com Alex

    Mark, you rock!

    I have to echo the sentiments that this was your best post yet!

    The story makes me think about the greatest story about sales ever… “green eggs and ham.” Persistence just isn't a good enough word. Sales, the way you described how you sold your way to Europe, over several years and several people, is an attitude which is summed up by “don't every give up.” If there is one thing for Entrepreneurs and Investors alike to keep them moving forward, it is this attitude.

    One other thought, “it is better to give than to receive,” you now have a wife and family due to the fact that you looked past yourself. You too left the US (like your college friend) and came a changed man.

    Great post, great story. I think you should expect more people coming to you now that are not willing to take no for an answer. ;)

  • A Franchiska

    I agree with Jono Lee, this is an amazing and heartfelt blog post, and being one who is being mentored and finally at the age and mind frame to mentor, it means a lot. Wonderful! Truly.

  • http://www.repeatablesale.com/ Scott Barnett

    I really like your posts Mark – they are just too frigging long :-). This one was awesome and really resonated.

    I keep trying to get back to my blog, when I do, I'm going to write about win-win deals – it is at the heart of being a good entrepreneur, businessman and great person in general.

  • Sal Matteis

    Best post yet Mike. One that we can all call truly inspirational – and in so many ways.

    It's a true story and that makes it priceless. Thank you for celebrating the memory of someone who was special to you in a way that inspires people to be human and go for their dreams.

    Thanks
    Sal

  • http://twitter.com/horatiumocian Horatiu Mocian

    Hi Mark,

    Great post. It also happened to me to receive help from people that didn't have any obligation to do it, and I will always remember those moments. Also, they motivate me to do the same in the future (and present).

    Nice to know that your grandfather was from my country, Romania. Did you have any chance to visit it?

  • Christian Wig

    This was an extremely inspirational and personal post! Long forgotten moments from visiting Sophia Antipolis in the 90's came back to me. Unfortunately I never worked close to Cory during my years in Andersen Consulting, but I can easily relate your experience to my own 'moments of change'. Thanks for sharing!

  • http://www.sc2review.com Eric | Starcraft 2 Strategies

    Nice entry – I think that most people have the power to really impact someone else's life, but mostly we're too scared, lazy, or caught up in our own life. This entry was really inspiring.

  • M L Castellanos

    This is a very nice story. I hope others who could really use it, the ones that don't or just can't act from the heart, get a chance to read it.

    No one has ever worked for me either and the only ones I work for are my wife, my kids, the local grocer and maybe the note holder. I might report to someone, but I don't work for them. It's funny though (maybe sad?), how only a very few actually knows what that means.

    Please continue writing these.

  • http://ainsley.myopenid.com/ Ainsley

    Mark,

    Catching up on my reading. Blown away by this post. Despite your defense of McNabb ;), you and I agree on perhaps the most important part of being successful. Jackie Robinson said it succinctly, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” I live by these words, and very much appreciate your thoughts on the subject.

    You made my day.

    Cheers, Ainsley (@iAinsley)

  • Marilyn Byrd

    What a great post. I started out skimming and then ….. well …. went back and read every word. You always engage me, but never more than today. Cory would still be proud.

  • http://twitter.com/JayHung Jay Hung

    Mark, great post. This is my first comment on your blog after reading numerous posts, and I felt this was as good a time to leave it. Cheers.

  • http://twitter.com/tomas Domas

    “Perkele” is probably the only good thing coming out of Finland… #swedishsarcasm

    Great story! :)

  • ColinD

    Not only is this a great post- your reply to Anand is very, very good advice! I read your blog often and have learned quite a bit! Thank you!

  • freydrew

    I'm new to this blog but a friend FWD this to me saying, “You need to read this. And do this.”

    Like you my passion for working and living in Europe stemmed from my studies over there while I was in college. Similar to your friend, it too changed me completely as a person. Those 6 months abroad were the best months of my entire young life and I always think about them.

    It's hard to find work in Europe as a non EU Citizen and recently I've given up hope but reading this post has inspired me to pursue this dream yet again.

    Thanks a lot for sharing.