How Can Mentors Give Feedback to Founders without Discouraging Them Entrepreneurs are usually passionate about their ideas and sharing feedback can be a tricky task

By Sanchita Dash

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For a student fresh out of college or a seasoned corporate professional embracing entrepreneurship, validation of the idea is the first step towards starting a business. To execute their ideas, the first instinct of new entrepreneurs is to turn to a mentor who can guide them in the right direction.

However, mentors also need to be careful about their approach towards entrepreneurs, as their words could even discourage latter. Constructive criticism is what entrepreneurs need, which would not hurt their sentiments or shut down their ideas.

Investors Donning the Mentor Hat

Soemtimes investors, as a part of their investment offering, mentor start-ups. They come in with years of corporate experience and have a great understanding of the market, operational strategies etc. For Rajeev Menon, partner, Anthill Ventures, mentorship has been a rewarding experience. Sharing the lessons he has learnt from mentoring, he said, "In the best relationships, I'm mentoring founders and not the businesses. I'm not the boss, I'm offering them advice that they can choose to disagree with, as long as they are making progress, I'm happy."

It's best for start-ups to accept a mentor's advice, which could even be different from their philosophies. Menon believes that founders don't need sugar-coated words and that it's important for mentors to share feedback that is constructive yet honest. "It does not damage the self-confidence of the founders. Instead, it provides them guidance. A thin line separates a mentor from a tormentor," he said.

Meanwhile, Sanjay Enishetty, MD & CEO, 50K Ventures, has a different story to tell. For them it got difficult to share feedback with start-up founders and thus, they have stopped mentoring start-ups as a company. "They end up defending their idea and refuse to take the feedback in the right way."

Tactful Engagement is Key

A mentor's words are golden words for a start-up founder. As part of incubator programs, startups always turn to the mentors for support. Incubators here much like its literal meaning, save early-stage startups from all sorts of problems. Dr Apoorv Ranjan Sharma, Co-Founder & President, Venture Catalysts, who has led and mentored more than 80 early-stage investments with high success track record, believes that incubators and mentors save start-ups from shocks.

"You have to share facts with the founders and it has to be tactfully managed. The way the advice is shared matters a lot. If the feedback shared is based on data points and analysis and not gut feeling, start-ups will accept it no matter how hard it is," he said.

At Venture Catalyst, they incubate many start-ups and Dr Sharma shares the three things start-ups expect of them – seed money, idea validation and business model validation. As mentors, they identify the gap areas and provide the start-ups with analysis that is backed by data. According to Dr Sharma, their job as mentors is to transform the weak areas of a start-up. "We open the doors for opportunities and open their mind. Mentors shouldn't just advice start-ups, instead they should advice and facilitate help as that would have more weight," said Dr Sharma.

Expert Speaks

When a mentor shares his/her insights with the entrepreneur, it usually comes from their own experience in the field. Muthu Singaram, a mentor to many start-ups, believes that when a mentor helps a mentee to form specific solutions, the emphasis always lies in helping the mentee come up with their own solutions. While they do guide the team through the whole process, they allow them to work through the issues themselves. "Mentors use their previous experience and gained-knowledge to build and present real-life "case-studies" that are closely related to the problems being faced by the start-up entrepreneurs," he said.

Sanchita Dash

Entrepreneur Staff

Former Senior Correspondent, Entrepreneur India

In the business of news for 5 years now. Making my way across India thanks to my career. A media graduate from Symbiosis, Pune, I have earlier worked with Deccan Chronicle (South India's leading English daily), T-Hub (India's largest incubator) and Anthill Ventures (a speed-scaling platform). 

Stories, movies and PJs are my thing. 

If you hear 'The Office' opening score randomly, don't worry it's just my phone ringing. 


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