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.
“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.