How Mentors Kindle Entrepreneurial Spirit in a Start-up A mentor may provide both coaching or training when required

By Muthu Singaram

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Mentor is the Latin word meaning "to endure" or "to sustain a relationship to share one's experience with others". Mentoring is a way of offering support and advice to someone as a person and may touch on any aspect of his/her life.

Mentoring is different from coaching and training. Coaching is specific and tightly focused. Training is work related. A mentor may provide coaching or training when required.

A mentor never tells you all the answers, but will instead help an entrepreneur formulate his/her own answers and solutions. A mentor accomplishes this by sharing his/her experience and gained knowledge in dealing with the challenges faced by the young start-ups. The mentor will then help facilitate the young-start up in thinking about their own problems and how they can develop their own unique solutions.

Focus of a Mentor

When necessary, a mentor will provide training and coaching, however the emphasis always remains on helping the mentee to come up with their own solutions. A mentor might help the mentee build a presentation for investors, for example, and like a coach, a mentor will show the mentee all the ground-rules and foundations of writing a great presentation.

This presentation will focus less on textbook skills, however, and more on building using the mentee's strengths and developing a "customized game plan". The mentor will then help the mentee move to the next stage by helping the mentee locate potential investors and supporters.

Presenting Real-life Case Studies

This is where a mentor comes in. While a mentor will help a mentee think about and form specific solutions, the emphasis is on helping the mentee come up with their own solution. 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. The mentor will work to guide the entrepreneurial team through the whole process but will also allow the team to work through the issues themselves.

Funders often view the lack of experience of a young start-up team as a hazard and great ideas can be side-lined by a lack of experience and a pragmatic approach. For example, management issues such as cash flow can derail a project in its early stages resulting in the failure to bring the idea to market and a loss on the investor's part. Problem is, those inexperienced teams are often the people with the best ideas. Fresh and innovative ideas often come from people with no business experience, whether it's a senior researcher at a university, or a group of fresh college graduates.

How Mentors Help Inexperienced Teams

A mentor can help inexperienced teams by sharing their own experience and helping the mentor team address their weakness in business and economic knowledge. Mentors usually have experience working through the same or similar problems and can build a sort of a "case study" for the mentee to think about and work through. Mentors then help the mentee examine and solve their own problem, but the emphasis is always on helping the mentee come up with their own solution. Mentors can provide input for a whole range of areas, including marketing, operations, supply, product design, and everything else.

The Outside Perspective

Mentors also provide the value of an outside perspective. Using this outside perspective and their own experience and knowledge, a mentor can help you understand how your business relates to other parties. How will your investors view this project? What might make them uneasy about the project? How will customers view your product or service? What types of things will affect their decision to purchase or not purchase your goods? Having outside perspectives for your project will be essential and perhaps none will be more valuable than the perspective provided by an experienced and steady mentor.

Great Mentors are no "Yes Men'

And make no mistake, great mentors are not "yes men." A great mentor should believe in your product or project, but that does not mean that they will agree with every single idea you come up. Remember, mentors are there to help you cultivate your idea, and sometimes that means challenging your assumptions, questioning your business model, and pushing you to greater heights. It is important for the mentee to understand that this is a process of critique, not criticism, and the long-term goal is build a stronger business and/or product.

Great Business Leaders Also Rely on Other's Input

Often the process of critiquing a new idea can be difficult, but it is important to remember that your mentor is always trying to propel you to the next level. No business has ever been successful based on the vision of just one man. Even great entrepreneurs and business leaders, like Steve Jobs, relied on the input of others to build their highly-profitable enterprises. For example, most of the design genius that has propelled Apple into the world's largest electronics company come from Jonathan Ive.

Starting a new business or launching a new project is no easy task. A lot of people have great ideas, but only a few will master the market and make it big. Think about the computing revolution. They were one of hundreds of computer and electronic manufacturing companies during the birth of the industry in the 1970s and 80s. Yet out of those hundreds of companies only a handful, including Microsoft, Apple, HP, and Dell, made it big.

A coach will coach, but a mentor will cultivate the entrepreneurial team involved in the start-up phase. A lot of coach's like to tell you that they know the answer, but the truth is, each start-up will be unique and there is almost always more than one right answer.

Mentoring is never one to many, it must be one to one otherwise it is not mentoring.

In conclusion mentoring must have an incentive for mentor, mentoring must change as time goes on and mentoring must be monitored for effectiveness.

Muthu Singaram

Founder, VibaZone (Canada, India and Malaysia) and CEO, HTIC-MedTech Incubator, IIT Madras

Singaram has been working with entrepreneurs, companies, individuals, government organizations, regional ministries in the areas of entrepreneurship, technology incubation, technology acceleration , innovation, technology transfer and leadership for more than 25 years.

He has conducted workshops for technology transfer managers in the regions to enable them to carry out technology transfer.

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