Startups Need Mentors; Not Critics
No two ways about it, every single startup needs a team of advisers to guide them through the ins and outs of running a business, open doors to connections, and support technical decisions with financial know-how. Advisers can be valuable mentors helping to direct your startup down a tricky and winding path. They can help guide you on key decisions and actions. Unfortunately, many advisers devolve into the role of critic rather than mentor. They prefer to look back and highlight your mistakes rather than help you develop strategies to avoid them again in the future. These are not the kind of people you want to surround yourself with.
Yes, a critic can help you learn in the long run, but harping on past mistakes does not serve to build your confidence going forward. There will come a time when a team of advisers is no longer needed. A mentor looks forward to provide insight and business understanding. A critic just cuts through your confidence and reinforces your weaknesses, doing nobody any favors in the process.
Your team — co-founders, investors, employees, partners — can also harbor critics. They will bring negative energy to the operation. You do not want these types of people involved in any aspect of your business. Here are five tips to spot a critic.
1. Look for mutual respect. If a person is in position to serve as an adviser to your startup, they probably have already experienced a great deal of success in business. That being said, they must still respect you. Good business relationships are built on a shared respect and trust. Both parties must have each others best interests at heart. Good mentors do this.
2. Have they been there, done that? You can spot a critic right away when examining past experience. Critics try to get by on data or research because they lack the practical experience to truly support their opinions. A mentor can provide a real insider look into the industry thanks to years of experience. In business, you cannot talk in terms of absolute right and wrong — no one actually has all the right answers. A good mentor understands this, and guides you to understand different elements of risk and the best practices which can help you avoid unnecessary risk.
3. Are they an effective communicator? You need an adviser who is an effective, unemotional, direct communicator. Be it face-to-face, phone, or e-mail, communication is at the core of your success. Your adviser needs to be able to clearly communicate with you. Critics are prone to irrational, emotional outburst, or may choose to manipulate you through communication behind your back. This kind of communication can be poisonous.
4. Do their ethics align with yours? A good mentor also has a strong set of ethics. If your personal set of ethics does not mesh with those of your advisers, you will clash from Day One. I know that ethics cannot be painted with a broad brush, especially across cultural and international lines, and you should keep this in consideration. There are plenty of grey areas in business ethics, but your core ethics should match those of your advisers for the best possible outcome for both sides.
5. Can you have a long-term relationship? Some of the best advisers turned mentors lead to career-long partnerships, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett for example. The longer an adviser sticks around, the higher their value to your business. As time goes on, an adviser who is truly invested in your success can be one of the greatest assets you have. They will learn how to better relate to you and your business. Critics are not in it for the long haul; they want the short-term glory that comes with initial startup success, then they are off to look for their next hit of notoriety.
In the end, you may not be able to hand pick all of your advisers. Unfortunately, you may come across critics, but you can still learn and benefit from interacting with them. If you deal with them properly, you can take away positive insight without stressing yourself to death. It can be difficult, but do not take their criticism personally. They think they are doing something to help you, so try not to see it as a personal attack. Listen to their points, and try to take something positive away. Most importantly, react calmly and evenly to avoid confrontation.
The wide majority of advisers willing to work with you as a startup do want to see you succeed, even if they turn out to be a critic. It is very important to interact and meet personally before bringing any individual on as an adviser. Checking past relationships and references is a good starting point. True mentors can really guide you forward. Don’t let a critic force you to keep looking in the past.