Steps for choosing the right mentor for your startup
“Every great achiever is inspired by a great mentor” (Lailah Gifty Akita), meaning that every passionate entrepreneur needs a reliable support network that goes beyond peers and investors. Mentorship is equally important. The right mentor can help you maintain focus and brainstorm concepts that matter in order to become a fuller version of yourself. Although, choosing the right one is easier said than done. Building a successful startup is a tough journey paved with unexpected challenges, which begs the question “How multi-talented you actually need to be and what can a mentor do to help fill in the knowledge gaps?”
Online gurus, friends and family, books, and publications are a steady source of information regarding industry developments, opportunities, advice, business tips and tricks. Consultants, industry analysts, employees, and excellent networking contacts can share valuable insights that your startup desperately needs to hit the ground running. But only a skilled mentor can genuinely share wisdom in a way that has a direct impact on your startup’s growth. Mentorship goes beyond generic advice because a mentor’s ultimate goal is to give back to the community and provide focused advice that has a measurable impact on mentees.
Bridging the knowledge gap
Most people succeed on their own in entrepreneurship, partly because they’re experienced in a particular field. Maybe you’re a great software developer or maybe you’re an excellent engineer, but that doesn’t mean you know it all; because you don’t. When searching for a mentor, your focus should be on targeting someone with a particular skill set, not just great business sense; someone with complementary skills to what you can bring to the table.
CEO of PowerReviews, Matt Moog, highlights that:
“First-time founders need to identify the skills and experience they need from a mentor, starting with the gaps in their own experience.”
The gaps present in your set of skills should be filled by your startup co-founder. However, a mentor brings tertiary knowledge that is essential to the success of your business. TechStars mentor and CEO of PivotDesk, David Mandell, advises startups to search for people who can challenge their ideas and ways of thinking. The role of a mentor is to get you out of your comfort zone. "Those who challenge you are the ones willing to expend the energy and commit the time to really think through the problems you're facing ", said Mandell.
Go for the “been there, done that” type of mentor
When choosing a mentor for your startup, it pays to go with the “been there, done that” type. Go with someone who has made mistakes, has tried new things, has taken plenty of risks and finally, has succeeded. Your mentor doesn’t necessarily have to have experience in your business niche. But might help because he can leverage key connections and relationships to maximize your opportunities. Their role is to share valuable lessons from previous experiences, and attempt to instill a sense of drive from which you can learn to improve your business and speed up its growth.
As opposed to consultants and advisors needed to strengthen your business, choosing the best mentor for your startup has one core benefit: mentorship is usually free. And that’s a huge advantage when you have a small startup and you can’t afford to overspend. A mentor has no interest in selling you anything, which should automatically instill trust. As the connection between you and your mentor develops, the level of trust gets stronger. Over time, you’ll get to know each other and as they get more familiar with the business, they’ll be able to provide you with more accurate guidance and advice.
Choose a mentor that challenges you
A good mentor should challenge mentees to get out of their comfort zone. You won’t learn anything new and exciting if your mentor can’t make you see things from different perspectives. Before making your final pick, make sure the one you’ve chosen shares similar experience threads with you - whether they’re challenges they managed to overcome or mistakes they’ve learned from in the past. But remember, just because mentors claim seniority, it doesn’t mean they know better.
In many ways, they’re like hiking guides. They probably haven’t taken the same paths as you, and that’s ok. A mentor’s job is to help you overcome challenges in a completely new and unique way because the concerns you have, the uncertainties, and the doubts are yours only. Ultimately, you should choose someone who can keep your head in the clouds, but your feet on the ground. Make sure that your mentor is an excellent listener, too. Aim at finding someone who can tell you “Go for it!”, but only when the time is right; someone who can make you reflect on your decisions, even if that could also mean embracing the occasional setback.
Go with a former/active CEO or startup founder
The best mentor for your startup is a someone with startup experience; otherwise, you’re working with a coach that won’t bring much value to your new business. For example, middle-managers may have extensive management experience, but they know nothing about startup dynamics; which is exactly what you need. Only a mentor with startup know-how can truly understand that “you’re a flexible organization in search of a scalable business model where cash is king”. As a founder, your ultimate goal is to scale. Having a great business idea is great, but unless you put it into practice, you’re not gonna get far.
Only a mentor with experience in the startup world will have the guts to tell you “No. Just because you have a brilliant idea, it doesn’t mean you have a startup.” If you didn’t know this by now, 9 out of 10 new businesses fail within less than 12 months. Why? Because many founders are not the best listeners. Some of them focus on one segment of their startup, and completely forget about the rest. This is where a mentor enters the scene. Choosing someone with business know-how is the highly recommended because they’ve already been in your shoes; they’ve probably made the same mistakes as you, but they’ve learned their lessons and now they’re ready to share from their experience with you.
A mentor with powerful connections is equally important because they can help open a lot of doors for you and your startup. For that to happen, you need someone with relationships in the ecosystem and niche you’re operating. The right mentor can provide outstanding network effects to help kickstart your business: early customer trials, potential customers, strategic engagements, potential investors, and more. In general, investors feel a lot more comfortable and willing to invest if the startup was recommended by someone in their network.
A problem solver, a visionary
Given that you’ll have to work together with your mentor, excellent chemistry between the two of you is fundamental. A mentor should have empathy and help you see the bigger picture of everything that happens within your startup. Many young entrepreneurs may face depression, disappointment, and meltdown. A good mentor should know how to get you back up by removing some of your concerns with guidance, advice, and useful recommendations.
There are several key factors that make a mentor and excellent advisor. The right one should help you find creative solutions to existing problems happening in your startup, and look beyond the conventional to make reasonable decisions. Whether you’re having technology, funding, organization culture or market access issues, your mentor should be there with creative solutions and useful insights to help your startup deal with tactical and operational challenges that might happen daily.
All in all, when choosing a mentor for your startup, be very careful and rational. Good mentorship requires you, the founder, to be open and trust someone else’s suggestions, advice, and guidance. Leverage your mentor’s talents and expertise to the fullest. Figuring out how to scale a startup and take it from idea to execution is a real challenge, regardless of your level of education and amount of money you have. Experience trumps everything, and it can only be gained and nurtured if you surround yourself with people who are smarter than you; people who can challenge your decisions, people who can open new doors, and who can give you the opportunity to constantly learn and improve.