Why You Should Question Your Mentors' Motives
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In 2004, Napster co-founder Sean Parker met Mark Zuckerberg for the first time, having learned about "The Facebook" earlier in the year from his college roommate's girlfriend. The two gelled, and he quickly became a mentor to Zuckerberg, then moved into the company's first president role. According to a 2010 Vanity Fair article, Parker was integral to driving the company forward.
Related: 3 Steps to Finding a Great Mentor
A few years later, a drug scandal led Facebook investors to pressure Parker into resigning from his role, even though he remained involved in the company's growth.
Fast forward to just a few weeks ago, an interview with Parker has him commenting on the psychological manipulation of social networks and how founders, including Zuckerberg, purposefully created something addictive.
A strange comment to come from a former mentor, right?
Startup founders understand that throughout their journey, they'll work with mentors. They might meet these mentors in different places: Some could come from pre-existing networks, while others could be assigned by accelerators or professional recommendations.
There's no shortage of examples from history to show us that not all mentor relationships are created equal. While nearly all mentees have the same goal -- moving their businesses forward -- not all mentors have the same motivation, and in my experience in the startup world, there are three types of mentors that a founder could potentially encounter:
The used car salesman of the bunch, the Salesperson is here for one reason and one reason only: He is a potential vendor to the startup, and wants to get in on a deal. This mentor might offer good advice, but only as it pertains to the service being offered, and his motives are more related to the health of his own business rather than that of the startup.
On the surface, salespeople are all about helping the startup, when in reality they are working with these accelerators and young companies to build deal flow for their own company.
The Job Hunter
Most entrepreneurs have a love/hate relationship with the job market. With incredible growth skills, ex-entrepreneurs are highly sought after, but they are hard to hold down as free spirits and creators. The Job Hunter mentor knows that all too well: she's currently in-between jobs and needs a new gig, and figured that a good way in would be through the top.
So, what does she do? Using her skills to sell herself, she edges into a close relationship with the founders, ultimately using this close position as a mentor to snag a high-level position with the company.
The most desired of mentors, the Altruist knows the industry, knows the startup scene and really wants the best for his or her charges. These mentors provide a safe space for entrepreneurs to talk, and can use their position in the industry to the benefit of the founders by speaking out in favor of the company and making use of a strong network of contacts. They are committed to the company, its founders and its technology.
Most importantly and most visibly, Altruists have no ulterior motive and nothing to gain other than continuing the giving cycle of entrepreneurship. They have likely built out their own companies at one point in time, sold well and are in a position to give back to the entrepreneurial community purely for the sake of giving -- and you'd be wise to listen to these people. They know their stuff.
In all of these instances, the mentor economy is built on platform of delayed gratification. Mentors are contributing their time, energy and experience with the payoff being some unknown and unspecified gain in the future. That gain could be financial, or simply bragging rights when the startup turns into the next big thing.
For all of these different types of mentors, there's no reason that the person couldn't potentially be a very good mentor. The issue in all cases is not knowledge, but motivation. If the mentor is more motivated by selfish purposes, the relationship will not work for the entrepreneur in the way it should.
In my many decades in the startup community, I've been on both sides of the equation: I've founded eight startups, and more recently, have served as a mentor to hundreds. From both ends, some relationships went better than others.
Throughout those relationships, my key takeaway was that the onus is on the startup founder to make sure that the relationship is right. Early stage entrepreneurs are wide-eyed and curious, and not always hardened by years in business. Many entrepreneurs we see today are fresh out of college and ready to launch their big idea.
For these founders, and for any others looking to develop a strong working relationship with their mentors, it is imperative that entrepreneurs spend time learning about their mentors' motivation. Even in the instances when a mentor is matched -- by an accelerator, for example -- entrepreneurs must constantly question their surroundings rather than simply accepting what is handed to them.
Learning about motivations requires a variety of questions, including potentially talking to previous mentees to get their input. This is effectively a job interview: You may not be paying your mentor, but you are letting him or her into the heart and soul of your business, and need to treat the relationship that way.
Mentorship is a double-edged sword: Allowing someone close into the heart of a new business can be the key to securing funding and developing a strong pipeline, but it can also be the downfall of a startup. There are a small number of truly altruistic mentors out there -- make sure that this relationship is one that will be beneficial to your business in the long term.
Related Video: How to Attract The Best Mentors, According to Tim Ferriss