Mentoring a startup is a rewarding way to pay if forward and when done right not only can you give something back to a community, but you can also receive some amazing rewards. Startups need help navigating the business and technical areas that are unfamiliar to them and in return they are able to share new methods, market approaches, innovative thinking and passion. However, what I found is that many of the mentors I come across just aren’t prepared or aware of what their role really is and how to support a Startup.
Recently I was mentoring at Techstars inaugural accelerator focused on Artificial Intelligence applications and since it was the first of its kind it attracted a global audience of both applicants and mentors so I was very curious what methods, styles and input I could learn from other mentors, after all there were some pretty big names at the table. The biggest fault I saw was related to being available or dedicating the amount of time the Startup needed but there were several common issues that I believe are worth pointing out. There isn’t a handbook per se on being a mentor so I thought it could also be a good way to pick up new ideas.
When I am preparing to meet new startups I tend to run through an internal checklist to make sure that I am in the correct mind frame when I meet them, its important to remember that its not your company so you cant approach and criticize in the same way. Also try not to focus on the technology too much at the start, get enough information to reassure yourself and come back to it later. Here is my internal list for mentoring:
• Above all – dont crush the enthusiasm as this is what really drives a startup, makes them work long hours and fuels their passion, after all its normally the passion for something that got them here
• Teach don’t tell – Startup founders are typically not the best listeners, because they are driven by their passion so you need to provide them with real examples so that they can correlate the information with what they are doing and to most importantly come to the correct realization by themselves
• Be available – double what you thought – if you cant commit to time because you work for a demanding company, have a family, travel or whatever then just say no. They need to know that you will make time for them, it will make a world of difference
• You are not as important as they are – be flexible in your time, put away the cell phone, your experiences are yours and may not be theirs, so listen to the new concepts / ideas
• Try to remember what it felt like when people had said no to you on your idea – we want to correct them or critsize (constructively of course) – but here is where emotional intelligence and empathy need to kick in so you can read how they are feeling, make sure they feel supported and heard
Keeping it Simple
Keep it simple in the first 3 meetings, even if you don’t think they have what it takes, stick to the foundational comments such as below because they too have a lot in their head, your job at the start is just to build a repour and get them to start thinking logically about execution, if they are smart just by you asking questions they will come to the right conclusion themselves:
• Advise them to build to release, get something into the market – do not build the ideal solution or something that has to support 1M+ users
• The solution still has to meet a market need ideally solving a problem – advise them on how to validate their hypothesis and how to test it out
• Cash is still king – money gives you choices to make the right decision
My last piece of advice on mentoring is to have fun, make it fun for both you and the startup. Take them out, bring food and start by getting to know the people first. There needs to be a match like any relationship and having fun will make it easier for both sides to get to know one another and to trust each other. If you are always serious and always focused on execution, then it just won’t work.