Who are your mentors? Whether or not you have formally designated mentors or advisors, as an alert entrepreneur you are probably bold about asking for guidance whenever a trusted party is available to you. Just like it’s nearly impossible to diagnose a flaw in your own golf swing, having a knowledgeable third party look at your business is a great way to keep your startup properly aimed at the target.
Mentors can come from your family, your personal network, organized mentor programs at an incubator, accelerator, or startup competition, your board and investors, potential investors, and your peers. But, not all mentors will give you correct advice, and if you ask more than one the same question, you may get multiple conflicting answers. The goal of this essay is to improve your discernment when tapping such resources.
Let’s say you are accessing a formal mentoring program. Here are some issues to consider:
Mentors generally are volunteers. It’s difficult for any entity curating a formal mentor pool to say no to people who seem to have suitable credentials and ask to be included. They will range from young, very skill-focused technical experts to older, more broadly experienced general business types who are often successful serial entrepreneurs. They will all look good on the web page showing their pictures, interests, and career highlights. Their LinkedIn profiles will be polished. You may meet them through some sort of organized speed dating process, through personal introductions, or just by seeking out the ones that look most relevant on the aforementioned web page.
What happens next is a function of how their motivations align with yours. Some mentors are looking for paying gigs as long-term advisors or even as team members. There’s nothing wrong with that; serving as a mentor is a good way to find an opportunity. If the personal chemistry is there and you clearly need what a given individual has to offer, you may want that person around for a long period of time. You’re going to get better advice from someone really immersed in your business over time than someone giving more casual drive-by opinions. However, be cautious if there is a request to turn on the meter on the first date. You really need time to create a productive relationship, and you need to get concurrence from your team, board, and influential investors. It’s not hard to check someone out. You can certainly talk with other companies where a person has mentored.
You may also find a mentor who is inclined to make an angel investment and wants to check you out. If you get along, that could be a lucky break. If I were individually making angel investments, I’d certainly do some mentoring to evaluate the opportunities.
Do not hesitate to say thanks but no thanks when you feel that a mentor is not capable of providing you high value for the time spent. It’s cool to tell buddies that one is mentoring a tech startup, but if the motivation is just to fill idle time and not really to engage in a productive way, your own time gets idled as well. Be tactful, since you never know who is connected to whom in the tech community, but pull the trigger when you need to.
Also say thanks but no thanks when the mentor clearly doesn’t have contemporary knowledge of your particular domain or startup processes in general. What may have worked well for that person in a previous venture may no longer be applicable today. I have tried to keep myself relevant technologically by staying involved in the startup community and having a design team in tow to build innovative products and/or companies. If I had spent my recent 7 years in Austin just playing golf, I might not be able to spell blockchain. And, most likely, my golf game wouldn’t have gotten that much better anyway. Relevance is not so much a factor of age as it is ongoing involvement and genuine interest. Even an 30-year-old with a successful exit can become obsolete pretty fast by choosing to retire to the beach, to become a missionary in far flung parts of the world, or to obsess about a hobby that burns up some of that pile of money in the bank. A similar warning applies to mentors coming out of fancy careers in corporate America. Many of them are not adaptable to startup methods and will have a steep learning curve. However, if your business model is based on harvesting enterprise customers, you might find the perfect fit in someone like that who can walk you straight to decision makers in your target market.
When you look through a mentor pool for some help, pay attention to how well the diversity of that group matches your team and your target market. Who there might bring a point of view that otherwise wouldn’t be represented in your core decision making team? Who might add a new dimension of customer access or reshape your product thinking to broader appeal? Who might provide your gateway to an area of technology, e.g. quantum computing, if that has any potential fit with your plan. If everyone offered to you is a clone of you and your skills, keep looking.
Work your mentors hard. They will appreciate it. Your mentors and advisors, like your board, ought to be extensions of your sales force. Keep them busy on constructive assignments that give them a sense of accomplishment. There’s no joy in being a mentor just to bloviate. What matters is providing help that has a payoff. Even though there’s no tangible reward to a volunteer mentor, the psychic income keeps them coming back to provide more help. Keep them informed and in the loop; you just never know when you might trigger some thought, or some connection, that becomes important to your business.
Listen to your mentors. Once you’ve made the effort to assimilate them into your business thinking and have concluded they are genuinely helpful, pay attention to their advice. It won’t always be pitch perfect, and some of it will be conflicting, as mentioned above, but you owe them the courtesy of hearing them and responding accordingly. You won’t hurt their feelings when you give them a logical reason to reject an idea; that’s a teaching moment which will lead to better advice on the next topic.
I have learned that the one thing that makes mentors angry is recruiting them to a mentor pool and then not being able to match them to a startup. Fortunately, that is not your problem. Those of us who assemble mentor pools can’t force matches to be made. Over time, most will find a good fit, but, like any dating ritual, it may not be accomplished right away. We want to measure success in part on how well our pools are utilized, but this is a relationship activity and not like matching blood types. Nature will take its course. Your mission as a startup founder is to select mentors that fill unmet needs for you and that match your priorities. Such mentors will be a valuable resource for you if you heed some of the advice in this essay.