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3 Big Lessons These Startups Learned From Their Mentors

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The top honorees from our 2016 Startups to Watch list share what they've learned so far from working with their advisors.

Ezra Bailey | Getty Images
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1. Slow down. Get it right.

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The Town Kitchen CEO Sabrina Mutukisna and mentor Mark Kohler. | Photo credit: Rachel Pradhan
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2. There is no singular, magic formula for success.

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Bitsbox co-founder Scott Lininger (left) and mentor Greg Shugar. | Photo credit: Rachel Pradhan

3. Your personal brand can be a valuable asset.

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Leesa Sleep's Alex Realmuto and digital marketing expert/mentor Cynthia Johnson. | Photo credit: Rachel Pradhan
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Advice. Training. Connections. Personal development. Guidance. Empowerment.

There are a lot of positive results entrepreneurs can gain from working with a seasoned business owner as a mentor.

When Entrepreneur and Staples mined the 2016 Entrepreneur 360™ list to come up with a list of 10 Startups to Watch, one of our goals was to provide a trio of up-and-coming startups with insight that only real-world business owners and experts can provide.

And that’s exactly what they received. Here’s a look at the biggest lessons the startups—The Town Kitchen, Bitsbox, and Leesa Sleep—learned from working with their mentors.

Sometimes an entrepreneur’s initial impulse is to work fast and figure out the details later. Sabrina Mutukisna, CEO and co-founder of Oakland, Calif.-based The Town Kitchen, learned that sometimes the exact opposite can be the best approach.

The Town Kitchen prepares and delivers locally sourced, chef-prepared lunches. It hires, trains and mentors under-served youth to learn career skills with chefs and entrepreneurs.

When Mutukisna co-founded the company in 2015, much thought went into its mission, less about diligent bookkeeping and finding the right business structure. So, Mutukisna was matched with longtime accountant and attorney Mark Kohler. What she learned is that, sometimes, it pays to go slow and do things right the first time.

“Oftentimes, you act quickly instead of fully researching how things like business structure and investment terms will impact your long-term sustainability,” Mutukisna says. “Mark's been helpful in clearing up common misconceptions about types of corporations and their tax implications. He's focused on getting us to see how our accounting and financials will impact The Town Kitchen in the future ... three years or five years down the road.”

In 2015, Scott Lininger co-founded Bitsbox, a Boulder, Colo.-based company that creates a monthly subscription box and website that teaches kids about computer programming. Fast-forward to 2017 and Lininger and his team are laser focused on product refinement and PR.

To help Bitsbox rev up its marketing and PR efforts, we matched him with mentor Greg Shugar, who founded and sold online menswear company The Tie Bar, and co-founded Thread Experiment.

Lininger says “sharing war stories with another founder who built a success story,” such as Shugar, has been invaluable. He has learned that there is no one path toward success.

“The hardest part about selling online is finding the best channels to reach your customers,” Lininger says. “The advertising landscape is constantly shifting. Things that worked last year won't necessarily work this year, and techniques that yielded results for one company won't always work for another.”

Having an 8-year-old son of his own, Shugar test drove Bitsbox for himself and loves the company’s concept. “We built a few of the apps and my son instantly started to realize that it was he who was controlling what we were seeing on his iPad,” Shugar says. “I'm sure as the months go on, the projects will become a bit more sophisticated and hopefully, my son will get the bug to want to program more and more.”

When spreading the word about your brand online, sometimes it’s just as important that your employees have faces and voices as it is for your company itself. After all, they know your products and industry best.

That’s the lesson mattress company Leesa Sleep’s head of digital marketing, Alex Realmuto, learned from his mentor, digital marketing expert Cynthia Johnson. He says that building his own personal brand has been a catalyst for Leesa’s marketing.

“By participating in forums like industry events or guest blogging, not only does it allow for genuine opportunity to grow awareness about your business, it facilitates a conversation to share, learn and garner feedback from influential industry experts,” Realmuto says. “Meanwhile, you get to share proven digital marketing tactics, to contribute to the overall evolution of the e-commerce community—no matter the vertical.”

“Working with Alex at Leesa has been a wonderful experience,” Johnson says. “He has so much to offer to other entrepreneurs and marketing experts. With his knowledge in marketing and advertising, I think that together we can grow his reach and strategically grow his network and audience to directly benefit Leesa.”

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