Startup Mentoring: From Good to Great
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Contemporary first-time entrepreneurs are divergent in their ages, experience, stages of their ideas, industry focus, and financial capabilities. The thread that connects them is their need for supportive mentors who can help them navigate the ups and downs of their startup journeys.
Startup mentoring is a challenging and time-consuming job. However, seeing new founders walking smoothly on the road to success is an uplifting experience. Some lessons that we have learned while working with entrepreneurs at our Incubator are:
Mentoring is a Holistic Relationship:
Contrary to popular opinion, startup mentors are not just resources on tap that you draw as and when you need; and they are not just domain or technology experts who provide technical inputs. Mentoring is a mutually rewarding and wholesome relationship that spans the mental, emotional, and professional dimensions of a founding team’s life. To be effective, startup mentors must appreciate that building trust and empathy are essential components of early discussions with the founding team. Listening, not advising, is a crucial skill for a mentor, so get to know the founders as people – what makes them tick, what are their strengths and weaknesses, what are their family backgrounds, and how do they work individually and as a team. War stories and make yourself approachable. Setup means of communication (e.g., email) and frequency (e.g., weekly) that matches everyone’s working style and needs. Like any healthy relationship, mentoring involves candour, a free flow of ideas and an openness to critique. Startup mentoring, while not a panacea, is too important a role to be perceived as an annoying transactional overhead – by either party.
Align Expectations: Be Humble:
Each founding team’s capabilities, vision, and passion are unique, as are their expectations from mentors. Some founders may require industry knowledge while others may prefer technology inputs; some may look for emotional or adult support while others may seek mentors to provide a strategic direction. Of late, we notice startups preferring one mentor for strategic advice and a couple of others for functional support in areas like technology and finance. At the start of a mentoring relationship, mentors must have open conversations on the team’s current stage, vision, and the expected value over time. Set clear and time-bound expectations of what the mentoring relationship will deliver, and what it will not. We have found that proceeding with unclear or misaligned expectations is just too painful and expensive for all concerned, so if a suitable win-win is not evident in the early days – it is quite okay to wish each other well and to move on.
Early-stage Startups Need Intense Mentoring:
There is no such thing as a light-touch mentoring. Especially in the early stages, as founders’ ideas pivot to make sure you are around to steer the boat (and not to row it) through these changes. Swinging between Socratic and didactic modes, startup mentoring requires unwavering commitment and varied skills of engagement. Founders (with technology background in particular) tend to develop tunnel vision around their product/service. Hence, it is the mentor’s responsibility to encourage the founding team to see things from a customer / outside-in perspective and to develop habits of informed experimentation. The mentor must also ensure that the team’s focus is not just to launch but to create a viable long-term institution with humane values. Personal energy of founders also varies through the journey – be prepared to be their anchor. Be kind but honest; offer constructive criticism with the objective of moving the needle on the team’s mindset and actions.
A Common Mentoring Framework/Pathway Helps:
Most mentors are well-meaning but divergent in their experience and approaches. As a result, a mentor may provide contradictory advice over time to the same startup. Because they come from different perspectives, multiple mentors to a single startup often confuse the team about their immediate and long-term priorities. To make matters worse, a mentor’s communication skills, or lack thereof, also sends the startup in wasteful meandering. It helps to have a common vocabulary between mentors as peers, and between mentors and startups.
The challenging-yet-rewarding role of a Startup mentor is many functions rolled into one. Borrowing from cricket, it is analogous to the team’s manager (provides strategic direction), coach (gives technical advice and critical feedback), physician (helps recover from painful episodes) and spectators (provide cheerful support) all working seamlessly to nudge the startup on a path of enduring success.