Why Startup Mentoring Is Broken (And How To Choose The Right Mentor)

Framework To Find The Right Startup Mentor

The word ‘mentor’ and ‘advisor’ is sadly a much abused one currently in the Indian startup world. There are hundreds of examples where so-called mentors have taken equity in return for a vague, loosely defined, non-binding and in many cases verbal agreement. Alternatively, even if an industry veteran or a subject matter expert is willing to be work with startups, the results are sub-optimal. While both of these scenarios are changing as the maturity is increasing, there are various reasons why the mentorship / advisor model just does not work in its current form.

There are many reasons for this. I have been a management consultant (which is essentially the same as advising CxOs) for a large part of my professional career and hence the parallels of why it works or doesn’t work in the two different worlds may be seen from that lens. Note that the below viewpoint is relevant for startups who are yet to find product-market fit (may be up to Series C)

  • Point in time versus ongoing: A typical management consulting engagement for large corporate lasts from a few weeks to a few months, barring a few execution engagements which can last many years. So essentially, the recommendations that arise from such an engagement at that point in time can be implemented over the coming months and the organization can adapt accordingly. In a startup, there is no such thing as ‘point in time advice’ because of how daily / weekly course corrections are a way of life.
  • Contextual inputs while being immersive: A good management consultant’s strength comes from the fact that she works across clients in the same or different industries, thus bringing to bear diverse points of view when providing advice to clients. A startup, by definition, is trying to solve a brand new problem and is aspiring to carve out a new market segment for its product / service. While some learnings from different startups may be useful, a lot of the inputs / advice of a good mentor should be grounded in that particular startup’s context. This can only come by being immersed in that environment and working closely with the entrepreneur and core team in the trenches.
  • Founder perspective and belief: For a corporate executive, it is just a job, no matter how many years she has spent at the firm. But for an entrepreneur who believes in the idea so passionately as to sacrifice countless personal things, there are two clear implications — one, it is hard to believe that an outsider who knows only one aspect of the business will be able to give truly valuable advice; and two, if the mentor isn’t willing to be part of the execution of the recommendations, then the faith in inputs is going to be even lower

These points above were not merely created as an academic exercise. Very clearly, whether you are an expert who wants to mentor or work closely with a startup or you are an entrepreneur who is considering working with a potential mentor / advisor in a formal manner, the following are the key implications:

  • Time Horizon: If the mentor / advisor is not willing to commit her time at least for a year, the relationship is not worth investing in
  • Expertise: Mentors who are not open to learning the startup’s context and willing to learn and more importantly, unlearn things will not work. Such experts prefer to draw from their past experience and expertise and may not be willing to adapt to the startup’s day to day needs
  • Breadth: Mentors who would want to restrict themselves to the small sliver of their expertise area and want to provide inputs only on those aspects may not be optimal. An early stage startup’s different functions are so tightly interlinked that any change in technology may have a bearing on the sales process or a change in target segment might impact the onboarding workflow

What do you think? Want to add another thought? Let me know!