How Deep is your Mentor Pool? The real value in mentoring happens when people explore deeper issues such as identity, beliefs, interest, motivation and career paths

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Building a pool of mentors with varied backgrounds and experiences is of paramount importance to create a holistic environment for startups. This pool should essentially comprise college/university alumni, experts from the relevant sectors and other industry experts, corporates with experience in the field, individuals with manufacturing and product experience, individuals with technology background, individuals with strong legal and regulation footage, people from the financial sector with funding experience and successful entrepreneurs, who have done it all.

Building the mentor network is one of the biggest challenges most incubators and accelerators face. Thus they are unable to build a large enough pool for the access of the startups housed in the incubator as they lack the connect and do not reach out to associations, forums and other private bodies for support.

How to Build the Pool?

By reaching out to prospective mentors, who were initially directed and have shown interest to mentor or engage with start-ups (through various outreach channels). Once the incubator/accelerator meets the mentors they can follow up with each suitable mentor to gather more information on their professional experience and areas of expertise to build a database to be able to pair the mentor and mentee. Though it is slightly more time-consuming, this strategy has helped bring on board more mentors, as opposed to directing interested mentors immediately to a long mentor application form. As a next step, it is also important for the incubator to reach out to other associations, forums, angel networks, universities, industry, corporates to continuously build the pool.

It might seem instinctive tohand-pick mentors based on their domain expertise. While this is still beneficial for basic knowledge transfer, it often leads to shallow relationships. The real value in mentoring happens when people explore deeper issues such as identity, beliefs, interest, motivation and career paths. Because mentors and mentees interact in a variety of different ways thatgoes beyond subject expertise,so it is vital that the pool is wide enough to provide a good match.

Width and the Depth

The mentor pool should be wide enough to provide all the support a start-up would possibly require in terms of mentoring and deep enough for the mentors to help the mentees resolve their challenges and create an impact in the start-up's journey. A start-up irrespective of the area of work requires financial, legal,operational, marketing, business & strategy and technology mentoring as shown in fig 1.


Now look at each of these types of mentors. Many start-ups initially lack operational skills and a mentor in operations can help them for smooth processes. Many start-ups find it difficult to understand legal matters that affect their business, they have little knowledge on what and how to file for intellectual property rights (IPR). Here a lawyer or IPR expert would be a great mentor. Most of the times start-ups lack the financial understanding and know how. Here a chartered accountant or an account professional would be of great help. Most start-ups tend to struggle with their business model and a management consultant would be of great help in mentoring.

Even after having their finances and business models in place, often they have a hard time in marketing it and here a marketing expert would not only be able to mentor in marketing but would also be able to suggest which type of marketing should be carried out. All start-ups should find a successful entrepreneur, who can mentor them on the general facets of a start-up need. Most technology start-ups tend to struggle at some stage with their technology and a technology expert would prove out to be a great mentor.

Based on this, a start-ups need all these sometime along their journey. It must be noted that at various stages and times, different degrees of mentoring is required. A single mentor, most likely, would not be able to provide all these different types of mentoring as the start-up needs evolve over time.

This often can be a challenge for incubators /accelerators to ensure that they have a large pool of mentors, who have varied experiences and expertise. Many are often general mentors who can guide when a start-up is getting started. However, these mentors would not be able create value in terms of specific areas. So, incubators / accelerators need to build a pool of mentors. Saying this a start-up must be cautioused about not getting involved with too many mentors, as it can lead to non-productive output for both the start-ups and the mentors.

When start-ups get started, it would probably require basic mentoring and hence the incubators /accelerators might have resident mentors to mentor these. Ideally they need successful entrepreneurs. As the team builds its technology, it might need deep mentoring in technology and legal with basic mentoring in other areas like finance, business model and marketing.

As a start-up gets ready to go to the market, it would require deeper mentoring in financials, business model and marketing. As the team gets to scale, it would need deeper operational mentoring. As it can be seen, the start-ups need different types and levels of mentoring depending on which stage of the product life cycle they are.

As time goes along and the start-up gets deeper, it would need focussed mentoring, therefore the incubator / accelerator needs to build its pool of mentors, so that it can support the start-up by having these mentors readily available.

Muthu Singaram and Prathistha Jain

CEO, IIT Madras HTIC Incubator and Director at Vibazone Private Limited

Muthu Singaram is the CEO of IIT Madras HTIC Incubator. And, Prathistha Jain is the Director at Vibazone Pvt. Ltd. 

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