10 tips for would-be startup mentors and advisors


I’ve been lucky enough to mentor on multiple Techstars programs in London and Berlin, as well as working with some very smart people at Lingvist, Kiip, Brandwatch, Flat6Labs, Startup Wise Guys and many startups and accelerators around Europe and the Middle East. I’d like to think I’ve learned a little bit from that time. Mostly, I suspect, I just haven’t been found out yet.

If you’re thinking of getting involved in this world, here’s some food for thought.

Don’t be a dick

This is really important. In many cases, you’re mentoring companies that are new. Their product isn’t fully refined or even properly defined. They haven’t figured out their market, their sales strategy or their target customers. In short, they are not perfect.

Your job is to help them. It’s not to tell them the product is shit, their business model is shit or they are shit. If any of those things are true, then part of your job as a mentor should become pretty clear pretty quickly.

Pointing out every mistake, misstep and misunderstanding early stage companies have made doesn’t make you look big, clever, smart or more worldly. It makes you look like what you are — a tool.

Be clear about your time commitment

At Startup Wise Guys, the lead mentors for each company did a one hour meeting/Skype/call with their team every week. If you’re going to advise or mentor a company — be clear about how much time you’re willing to commit. If it’s less than an hour a week, then it’s probably not worthwhile for either side.

Also, be clear about when you’re available and when you’re busy. There’s nothing worse than feeling like a company is pestering you or they feel an advisor is deliberately avoiding them when they’re actually on holidays.

Stick to that commitment

Everyone’s busy. Very few people are so busy that they can’t muster up time for a chat every week in person, on Skype or on the phone. If you make a commitment to help a company, stick to it.

Get on their Slack

With Sorry as a Service and Brandwatch, I’m on Slack. With Lingvist, I’m on Fleep. Get on whatever platform they’re on. This way, I can check in quite regularly and see conversations, issues, triumphs and failures emerge in real time. I can chuck in my two cents and generally be more helpful. This has been the most transformative thing that’s happened since I started with this malarkey.

Do intros — but only when it’s right

I suspect some of the startups that I mentor hate me. In our initial sessions, I’ll talk about some connections that I can introduce them to, and then they don’t get that connection for two months. This is really important — particularly in an accelerator setting — you should only intro people when they are ready. Introducing a company to a potential partner or customer when it’s too early for either is a great way to ensure that intro leads nowhere.

Also, learn how to write good intro emails. Want hints? Check this out.

Be honest

See the first point — don’t be a dick, but don’t sugarcoat, don’t overflatter, don’t plámás, don’t hold back. If people are making mistakes with hiring, firing, advisory roles, fundraising, business development, sales and more — tell them. I am friends with a great many of the people whose companies I advise. However, that friendship occasionally has to be parked.

Always be hiring

Being a board member, a mentor or an advisor is something in between being a HR person and a therapist. One of the best things you can do for any company you work with is help them to hire. I’m constantly listening to conversations to figure out who’s available, who’s wobbling in their current role, who might be interesting to talk to and who might make a huge difference for the company or companies I’m working with.

Always be evangelising

If you’re doing this, it’s usually because you have a network, some credibility or some expertise. Assuming that’s the case, you’re likely to be meeting people and having some reasonably relevant conversations. Whilst I hope I’m not a pub bore when it comes to the companies I work with, I do talk about them and insert them into presentations and relevant conversations.

When it starts to feel like you’re going steady, talk…

Spend a lot of time (I usually aim for three months) figuring out if you and the company like/love/loathe one another. If it feels like it’s starting to get serious, then you need to talk. If it’s looking like it might be a longer term relationship, then it’s important to make sure everyone’s interests are aligned. Longer term advisory positions typically involve option grants.

Some basic pointers — pick a fixed percentage rather than trying to tie it to hourly rates or any other esoteric equation. Anything over 0.5% in options is excessive. Scale that percentage back for later stage companies or if you’re committing less time. Make sure the options vest over time — two or three years with a one year cliff is probably the best protection for both sides. You can find some good advisory agreements here.

Know when to fold ‘em

There’s a natural lifecycle that companies and their advisors will go through. At some point along the way, it may become apparent to one or both of you that your advice is better suited for a different stage of that cycle. When that happens, be a grown up and walk away. If you see it happening and the company doesn’t, flag it. If the company sees it coming and you don’t….well then, this video should explain it all.

Hardly the 10 commandments, but hopefully a good start. If you do decide to do it, or if you need some advice, feel free to get in touch with me on Twitter. I’ll try and think of something smart to say.