Finding your Startup Mentor

Some LinkedIn friends of mine assembled a list of questions to ask a potential mentor for your startup company. The list focused on some obvious questions to ask: what products have you built and shipped, which customers have you sold to, and which teams have you built. But it had several questions that won’t work for everyone — its not a framework that can be universally followed. I’m going to describe an approach that I think works for all entrepreneurs.

The specific issue I had with these questions were that they focused on the mentor having built a start company themselves as a prerequisite. Most of the questions would be failed by many excellent mentors. To name a few popular names, Satya Nadella, Jack Welch, Sundar Pichai, Sheryl Sandberg, Tim Cook, Indra Nooyi, and Ajay Banga. These aren’t exceptions. There are huge numbers of superstars who’ve never started a company that would make excellent mentors. While it would be great to have a very successful entrepreneur be one of your mentor, it’s not required. Here is why.

Startup teams are weak-link networks. That means in a startup the level of deficiencies in core areas will determine failure or a sustained series of wins in the company’s journey. Like in soccer, you need to be strong in every position to be a championship team. You cannot have a team with one or two superstars surrounded by a team of mediocre players, even one terrible player on a team can be catastrophic. Soccer teams are a weak-link network as described by Malcolm Gladwell in his podcast “Revisionist History” in the episode “My Little Hundred Million” about 6 minutes in.

A mentor needs to be someone who helps raise the team’s weakest links.

Here’s what you need to do:

1. Talk to customers, product managers, marketing, sales, technologists, operations, and yes even serial entrepreneurs (who have been successful). Talk to people that operate in the market forces of your space (see Porter’s 5 forces). Run your pitch by them and listen, discuss. Talk to former managers about your weaknesses (aka. development areas). You will need to do this anyway to come up with a great business strategy.

2. Identify your weakest links from these conversations. Examples: skills gap, knowledge gap, fund raising ability, customer acquisition ability, branding, operations scaling, managing you, managing the rollercoaster ride, etc.

3. Come up with your own list of properties of a great mentor based on these weakest links.

4. Then find a mentor who’s going to raise your weakest link(s) up, either directly or by direction. Ideally they would have found you through the first step.

Note: In Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast “Revisionist History”, episode “My Little Hundred Million”, Gladwell focuses on the American economy and not startups, but a great listen nonetheless. His inspiration is Chris Anderson and David Sally book on soccer.