Woody Allen is most commonly credited with the saying: “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” I might add “on time” to that.
I am happy to be maintaining a tightly packed schedule these days. I do try to work in some mentoring on request and enjoy seeing the ideas that are presented to me. However, mentoring is a two-way street, and I’m a lot more useful if I’m introduced to something thoroughly yet succinctly and have a fighting chance to render some valuable insight. Several times last week I planned my time around mentoring sessions. The first was just a no-show, no call, no nothing. A later one fell prey to a technology glitch in a Skype connection. I had to ask both of them to ping me in about a month to see about getting back on my schedule at some time unknown thereafter. I am working on very well defined priorities against which I must subordinate every other request for my time. When I have reserved openings that go unused, it may be quite a while before I can make a reliable commitment to reconnect.
This is not a power statement on my part. It’s just time management. I’ve observed that my partners are extraordinarily mindful of how they use their time. They prioritize, get to the point, limit discussion on any topic that starts to get repetitive, and are always racing against a clock to get things done. There’s no “dead air” in meetings, and there are always well documented follow-up actions that are assigned to specific individuals. That’s my preferred style as well. It’s the best way to run any kind of business.
One of my current tasks is assembling a mentor pool that is gender diverse. We have not much control over the mixture of our incubator tenants, but we can control the diversity of groups we assemble to advise those tenants, including mentors, educational speakers, and the like. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s good business as well. The founder of one of our promising companies in our venture portfolio is a female GA Tech sophomore. It behooves us to show her a breadth of relevant role models.
I introduce the topic of mentors here because, like any group of people, no matter how successful, they have a wide range of pros and cons. The better ones are good listeners who can empathize with a founder and offer not only good suggestions but also specific forms of help, e.g. customer connections and funding leads. They can provide immense value in sharpening the messaging or tuning it for markets they know well and where they have experience. Sometimes they themselves might be the right folks to provide ongoing help as advisors or board members; as I have written repeatedly, immersive long-term guidance is far more effective than drive-though office hours.
Some mentors are still actively striving to be part of success stories, even if just tangentially. If you as a founder treat them well, show up as planned, and respect their time, they’ll perform for you. They’ll roll up their sleeves and do real work. Unfortunately, you may encounter some who mentor as a hobby and are more prone to pontification than participation. On days when it’s too rainy or cold to play golf, why not go to your neighborhood incubator and offer some office hour time? Not that any of these people have bad intentions, it’s just that there’s a sharp distinction between mentoring as a pastime and mentoring with a genuine goal of creating new success stories. If anyone’s time is precious, it’s that of a startup founder, so do your best to discern who is benefiting you and who is not.
I made more people angry in Austin by not finding them teams to mentor in our Longhorn Startup program than in anything else I did. Hey, all I did was get all the prospective mentors and the student teams in a room and ring the cowbell periodically so they could rotate around and try all to meet each other. It’s real life Tinder, and from one semester to the next, a mentor might find a date or might not. I was not the swiper. I still have the cowbell in my possession, but I no longer have access to U Texas email and the hate notes archived there. You’ll have to take my word on that.
A word of caution is timely here even to the most dedicated and most qualified mentors. The partner who runs our venture fund really runs it. He pays close attention to the core companies in the portfolio and makes sure each founder stays on a direct path to the next important milestone in his or her company. Mentors are welcome, but mentors even with great ideas aren’t welcome to steer the founders off the carefully considered plan that is already in motion. Many folks are easily impressed by the last idea they hear and will drop the previous plan in order to chase that new one like a beagle chasing a bunny rabbit. One of my colleagues at Peachtree Software once accused me of that by saying my favorite color was plaid; but I maintain that I was in fact hewing to a precise course with only occasional opportunistic variations. The point is, as a mentor you are well advised to pick up on signals that you may be unduly influencing an impressionable founder toward some of those bunnies that his backers would rather not become distractions. As mentioned above, if you are not immersed in the company beyond just casual interaction with one or a few founders and haven’t been exposed to the full cast of characters and the grand plan, be a bit cautious in giving sweeping guidance. Every situation is different, and whatever techniques made you $millions in your last gig may be completely wrong for the person you are trying to help today.
In major metropolitan areas where your appointment promptness depends on air travel and ground traffic, showing up, and showing up on time, requires some planning. In December it took me two days to fly from Atlanta to Austin because of a freak snow in Atlanta and only 3 de-icing stations at the world’s busiest airport. Fortunately, I was just going home for the weekend and was not tardy for anything business related. And, I was able to get a cab to slip and slide me to my son’s house, where an air mattress was far preferable to an airport chair for my extra night in the ATL. I’ve long ago learned that, even if I have to wait some, I’m going to plan to get places early enough to allow for contingencies. Traffic is the most common excuse for missing appointments in both Austin and Atlanta, so I have become accustomed to scheduling my days to avoid peak rush and to allowing time for the unknown. In Austin, I learned also that just finding a parking space in downtown could be more unpredictable than driving to the vicinity of any destination there. So, just be kind to yourself and anybody with whom you arrange to meet by scheduling when everyone has a reasonable chance of arriving unhurried and unscathed.
And now, I must show up for my next event. There’s 80% right there!