Several conversations over the last month have turned to the topic of helping entrepreneurs. Having recently addressed founders in my chapter “Be Coachable,” allow me please in this essay to address this matter to you providers of help.
As you probably know, I prefer advising founders in long, immersive engagements. It’s a bit like psychoanalysis – once a person gets on that therapy, he or she appears before a chosen shrink frequently and over a very long duration. The shrink is facing away and either taking real notes or doodling on a notepad. I know one who taught himself Mandarin while supposedly listening to patients, and, yes, that’s a true story.
If you want to share your wisdom to founders, you have many avenues that do not require prior Freudian training. Every entrepreneurial program provides a cadre of mentors. If you choose to offer your services, be prepared to go through a speed dating scheme that is intended to connect you with one or more teams where you have relevant domain knowledge or just good chemistry. Expect to be disappointed sometimes if you don’t get a date out of this process. In most programs I’ve been associated with, we’ve had more willing mentors than we could accommodate, and those not selected went away unhappy. It’s a cruel game, and it doesn’t necessarily end up with the best matches.
My suggestion to you as a prospective mentor is to align yourself with a program where there is some thoughtful curation of the matchmaking process that adds needed bias in favor of the best possible pairings. And, help your own case by studying the concepts of the eager teams before you; try to focus on the ones where you have a clear ability to help. Most serial entrepreneurs can wax eloquent on general business advice, but, if you are meeting a manufacturing company building cancer cells on a chip for clinical trials and have no bioengineering training, you will likely be wasting your time and theirs. As a mentor, you are expected to bring to the table real experience, sound advice, relevance, customer and/or funding connections, enough technical grasp to speak the language, and adequate availability to see the startup process through.
No founder has time to train you. If you’ve never taken a startup from birth to scaling to exit and are younger than your advisees, perhaps you should bide your time for a while until you have accumulated more battle ribbons. Mentoring is not supposed to be a party, but I’ve seen plenty of situations where the process evolved that way. The quality of any startup program is judged in part by the soundness of the folks in the mentor pool, so look around you and see if you would choose to be advised by your peers in the room. Do you see folks from whom you personally would expect to learn? Is it clear that the all-stars are in the house and not the pretenders?
Mentoring can be delivered in a wide range of doses. You may become attached to a founding team and establish a routine schedule with them. If you stick to that and keep the frequency high, you won’t have to be brought up to speed at every meeting and will generally be in the flow of the startup. You’ll likely find that much more enjoyable and much more beneficial than more sporadic contact. You will be making eye contact, so you’ll have to brush up your Mandarin some other way. Occasional drive-by mentoring in my opinion only creates value if it results in more lasting engagements. Participating in office hours at an incubator is an efficient way to to do that short-burst work and fish for founders where there seems to be mutual attraction and the potential for much more than just a hello.
Many accelerators and incubators have institutionalized mentoring in the form of EIR’s or similar titles. Those folks may be hired in vertical specialties, and the larger and more successful incubators have enough deal flow to keep their agendas filled. That’s a good start to finding the best match when help is needed. Although even in that case it’s not possible to cover all the subspecialties in fields as complex as life sciences, it improves the odds of finding a calling for your advice just based on the number of deals aggregated in one spot. I came along before incubators and accelerators were “things” – but now they are almost over supplied. The better ones are finding their own distinct competencies and exploiting them proficiently. Get to know one that’s germane to your skills, and you might find your most fulfilling opportunities.
Dreamit is to me a shining example of this vertical approach. I watched a webinar recently by their UrbanTech group on how to sell into the real estate industry. They had a couple of crusty NYC real estate barons on the show, and the audience asked astute questions. I’m on the board of an IoT company that sells into the vacation rental segment of real estate, and I had enough familiarity with the field to glean some useful information from this session. Dreamit has another program in health, and there they’ve assembled the mother lode of corporate partners and based themselves amidst that group in Philadelphia. I have no connection with them other than knowing the founder who lives in Austin, but I salute them for their ability to differentiate themselves. If you are a real estate tycoon and have the urge to mentor, the odds are that Dreamit will have deal flow of interest to you. High-impact vertical mentoring can be done by webinar or Skype; you don’t have to live in Philly or NYC to share your wisdom where it will do the most good.
As to your style of mentoring, may I suggest you treat the people you are helping with the utmost respect. They might ride your advice to become billionaires and hire you someday. In any event, don’t bloviate. Everyone who has been around mentoring programs has met the folks who talk about themselves, speak the usual platitudes, and don’t listen. The founders they are supposed to be helping might as well be teaching themselves Mandarin. They will quickly tune out the hogwash and go about their higher priorities. The point is that a mentor is not inherently superior to the mentee. He or she is a partner with complementary experiences and an ability to convey advice in a collegial manner. Everybody gains when that is the underlying attitude. If your primary objective is to hear yourself talk, do something else please with our spare time.
Obviously no mentor is effective if the recipient is not coachable. You can read about that in my October 15 essay. Beware of the warning signs that no matter what you say, it isn’t being heeded. You have the free will to decide how to spend your volunteer or sometimes lowly-paid time, and it’s up to you to decide on which founding team and idea you are going to invest the one thing you can never replace – your time. A bit of diligence and thoughtfulness on your part can turn mentoring into a high calling of consequence. Or, you can just let it be a party. Your choice.