Getting a new company started is a large undertaking and most startups don’t even make it. So, when getting your young business off the ground, anything you can do as founder to give your company an advantage should be taken.
Besides the obvious competitive advantages - quick iteration, building a strong team and being innovative in your solution - are less obvious ones, like mentorship. In fact, a study conducted by Endeavor Insights of New York Tech companies between 2003 and 2013 showed that mentorship really can be a critical component in the path to success. Their study showed that 33% of founders who had mentorship from successful entrepreneurs went on to be “top performers”, compared to only 10% without that mentorship. Thats a big advantage.
Mentorship offers startups a chance to learn from others’ mistakes, allowing them to skip the falls that competitors might face. As well, having a great mentor can open up networks for a young company, with mentors often making introductions to relevant partners, customers and investors. But perhaps the greatest asset of a mentor is the free, objective advice and guidance a young company can get. Having someone knowledgeable but outside of the organization offers a clear view of problems that is often hard to founders to see.
You may be reading this and yelling “I KNOW! Now what?!” at me. Fair point. Finding the right mentor is not easy - after all, you’re looking for someone experienced, interested in your business, who has the time and who you connect with. Here are a few tips on where to start:
Create the ideal mentor profile in your mind and on paper - Start by identifying your weaknesses and the areas in which you could use support. This will help you to identify the right mentor to fill in your gaps. As well, be sure to include the obvious mentor needs to your profile like someone with industry knowledge, who has done similar things before and who has a great network. And, perhaps most importantly, you’re looking for someone who you can work with and with whom you have good rapport that can lead you to solutions, not dictate the direction of the business.
Engage your network to find the right mentor - The best mentor-mentee relationships we’ve seen are the ones that grew organically through mutual connections. Once you’ve created a profile, it is easy to let your network and community know you’re looking for someone who might be interested in working with your team on a specific area. You’ll be surprised at what turns up. As well, having a third party help make those connections can serve you as they can give you credibility and a reference.
Buy him or her a beer - A mentor-mentee relationship is a professional one, but anyone who has been an entrepreneur knows that the line between personal and professional blurs easily. So, spend energy and time really getting to know this potential mentor - it is critical that you can connect and communicate with this person and work well with them. Basically, you need to like them and they need to like you.
Get things on paper - Setting expectations is perhaps one of the most important parts of setting up a mentor-mentee relationship so take the time to really dig into what his or her motivations are - is he or she interested in being solely altruistic? Trying to sell their consulting services? Interested in keeping up to date on innovation in the space? You need to understand what it is that makes it worth it for your mentor who is giving of his or her time freely. Once you’ve gotten an understanding of the agreement, write it down! One of the biggest mistakes we see is with founders not setting up expectations appropriately. Don’t be that founder.
But just setting up the mentor relationship isn’t the end of this saga and isn’t what propels companies to greatness. It is the on-going relationship and added value mentors offer that tips the scales. After years of working with startups and focusing heavily on the importance of maintaining good relationships with mentors, we’ve come up with some best practices to keep everything running smoothly.
Make the relationship a priority
Not only do you need to grab a coffee, beer, meal regularly, but you need to be the driver of that relationship. As the founder, it is your job to maintain the relationship. We suggest setting up a standing meeting. This can, of course, change as needed, but it sets a cadence that makes interaction easier and expectations clear. Before each meeting, set up the agenda for the meeting in a consistent way. Perhaps you start with updates, followed by an ask of the mentor. Regardless, it’s important to be consistent and efficient with your mentors’ time. It shows that you respect this person and that you’re a responsible professional. As well, we always suggest you include an “open” time in every meeting where your mentor can speak freely - it is in these spaces that great ideas and solutions are often born.
Be direct and specific
You’ve brought your mentor on to support your business in a specific way so be sure your questions and interactions match that. Just explaining your business and hoping your mentor can read your mind enough to jump in right where you need him or her is a waste of everyone’s time and energy. Before meeting with your mentor, make a plan - what areas (that fall within their expertise) are you struggling with? What can they specifically help you think through.
Communicate sparsely, regularly and concisely
Mentors are busy people - sending an email every time an idea or issue crosses your mind is bad practice. Make sure that you’re being aware and considerate of a mentors time. We suggest a template update that includes an ask of the mentor, an update on achievements thus far, your plan of action going forward and update on your key performance indicators (KPIs).
Be ready for whiplash
Mentor whiplash, as coined by Techstars founder Brad Feld, is a very real thing. Mentors inevitably will have various opinions, often that counteract each other. They may have more experience than you, but that doesn’t make them 100% infallible. As the founder, your job is not to take every whim or idea from mentors, but to allow their experience and expertise to help you better understand your own business and market. At the end of the day, you’re the founder and it’s up to you to make the hard choices.
Mentorship can really be a competitive advantage for a young company, but it requires effort, planning and thoughtfulness to pull off. So get to it!