How To Find a Mentor For Your Startup
Every entrepreneur should have at least one mentor, if not several. But how do you find the mentor that’s right for you, with all the knowledge, experience, and wisdom to get you where you need to be?
Now, I’m not talking about just startup mentoring here, but I am talking about finding the right person to advise you on getting your business or your career or your life’s passion in order. Mentoring is vocational, not aspirational. You want to get in great shape? You don’t need a mentor for that. If you have to have one, personal trainers charge about $50 an hour at your local gym.
And that’s a decent analogy. Like a personal trainer, a mentoring relationship is a one-to-one commitment that should be established and defined up front. You should formally ask someone to be your mentor, which is a little awkward, because it’s like asking someone to be your friend. That said, a mentor is not there to be your friend.
Unlike a personal trainer, you don’t pay a mentor by the hour. That’s one of the differences between mentoring and consulting, and a lot of first-time founders confuse the two. You hire a consultant to help you make incremental improvements to your bottom line or your company growth. Mentoring is much more organic. It’s a lot of listening, and then it’s dropping the four most important words in the mentor toolkit.
Here’s what I did.
Not: Here’s what I think.
The best advice always comes from personal experience. And if I can’t tell you what I did because I’ve never done what you’re doing, I should be offering up the next best thing.
Here’s what I would do.
Not: Here’s what you should do.
The decisions are still going to be yours to make.
If I can’t do either of those things, you need to check me as a mentor. In fact, you should be constantly checking your mentors and their advice, a little like getting a second opinion from a doctor before undergoing a major procedure.
There should also be a weeding out every so often. Even the good ones. Yeah, you might have a mentor for a good long time, but at some point, you should have stopped referring to them as your mentor and started calling them your friend.
Because we can always use more of those.
I still rely on one or more mentors to help me get to the next level, even after 20+ years as an entrepreneur. With that focus in mind, here’s what I do to find good mentors.
Start At The Top
This might seem a little odd, but start out by shooting for the most successful people in your field. Admittedly, you’re going to have to reach way out of your depth, and if you aren’t, you’re not reaching far enough. The odds are going to be stacked against you, but don’t let location, status, or your own lack of network get in your way.
This is how people “get lucky.” They make their own luck. However, luck being what it is, don’t spend a ton of time bugging folks at the uppermost levels. Fire off an email or two and leave it at that if they don’t respond.
Spend a ton of time doing this. Go to stuff in your field. Anything. Conferences, trade shows, speaking engagements, meetups, whatever. Worst case is you learn something. Have a plan going in to meet as many people as you can. Your mentor doesn’t have to be the most successful person in the room, just someone with more experience than you. Preferably, much more.
Stay within your field, and don’t assume that someone who is a massive success in one thing is going to know how to get your other thing off the ground. Or vice-versa. Or any versa. Just make sure they do or did what you do or want to do.
Also, don’t go event-hopping all the time, just while you’re in the market for a mentor. Once you’ve got the one or more you need, return your focus to your business.
Be Persistent, But Be Pragmatic
If they’re not into you, let it go and move on. Life is not the Karate Kid and mentors are not Mr. Miyagi. If your target is a crotchety d-bag who is too important for you or too jaded by their journey, how much help are they going to be? Wait, let me answer that for you. They will be Negative Help.
Don’t waste your time with people who won’t give you time. Most successful people are actually open to mentorship, provided the fit is right and you’re not an ass about it. And that means if you’re getting a lot of no, you’re either aiming at the wrong people or you’re using the wrong approach. Check yourself too.
Ask For Help
Know what you want your mentor to do for you. Have a list. Nothing is more frustrating than someone asking me to coffee or beers (although I like both coffee and beers) with nothing more than a generic request for advice. Have an end goal in mind, and make that clear and quantifiable. Also give a closed time-frame.
“I’d like you to mentor me for a few months to help me find some connections and hone my pitch to break into the yarn sales market.”
Something like that.
Be realistic as well. If we’ve never met, there’s no way I’m getting you funded, but I can help you plan your fundraise.
Offer Something In Return
Like I said, you’re not paying for your mentor’s time by the hour, but understand that their time is still valuable. If you’re asking for something tangible like introductions or other resources, it’s customary to offer your mentor a very small piece of the company, like less than a percent.
But there are other ways to compensate. You’ve got talent. Use it. At the very least, your mentor should be able to learn something from you. I’ve also done straight-up trades before. Again, you’re not offering to paint their fence or wax their car, but if the fit is right, there should be something you can do for them.
“In return, I’ll tell every new prospect I talk to how awesome your knitting business is.”
You get my point.
Be Selective, But Be Open
Rule one is never take on a mentor that can’t help you. Unless that person has either sold or built something a lot like your product, they’re not right.
But if you find someone who is in the ballpark who you really get along with, play it out. You never know when the right advice is going to come along and from where. Mentorship comes in varying degrees and you can have one mentor or a dozen.
My best friend? He’s a mentor. My dad? Still a mentor. That one founder whose business has nothing to do with mine and who I only see every three or four months but I love his takes. Mentor/drinking buddy. My wife? You better believe she’s a mentor.
I’m still seeking them out. Constantly. Back when I was starting out I had three or four at any given time. These days, outside of those from my personal life, I’ve got at least one, sometimes two.
If you ask them, they’ll tell you: “Yes, he asked me to be his mentor, he brought me a list of things he wanted to work on, and we meet every three weeks over coffee for an hour and go through that evolving list.”
But keep in mind there are literally dozens of other people I’ve met with in the past, including some I thought would be a home run for me as a mentor, who I just don’t see in that way anymore. You have to weed them out, some because you’ve grown past them, others because they were never right in the first place.
Keep them close and return the favor when you can. Even the ones that sucked.
There really are no hard and fast rules to landing a mentor, but finding them is just like finding investors, employees, partners, even customers. It takes a lot of research, a lot of networking, a little trial and error, and plenty of due diligence.