How To Find The Right Mentor For Your Startup?

Successful founders attract successful mentors, experts in their field, people with a quality network who later help the startup score big customers and top investors. Yet most first-time founders I know fail to see the value of adding a mentor to their option pool, often discouraged by stories or those who engaged the wrong advisors.

Note: If you don’t feel like reading so much text, there is a video version of this article available on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w_fkV00Hsgs

When I started Filmaster, a movie recommendation startup, my first mentor was Chris Kowalczyk, a venture capitalist, who told me that he doesn’t really believe in my business idea, but he thinks I’ll find a way to be successful, one way or another. He was the person who introduced me to Lars Hinrichs of HackFWD who became my first investor. He was also the one who later put money into my venture, when I pivoted from a lame consumer site to a more attractive b2b offering. He stayed with me from the time I had nothing till a successful exit, never doubting in our success, even in times everyone else did.

My second mentor, Mark de Quervain, a seasoned executive in the entertainment industry, introduced me to the world of cinema chains, helped me shape my product into something my customers were willing to buy and then introduced me to dozens of potential of customers, helping close the first few deals in the UK. He also put his personal money into my company in the time I desperately needed it to survive.

My mentors: Mark de Quervain (left), Chris Kowalczyk (right)

Let me quickly go over the best practices or finding and managing mentors from the perspective of a startup founder as well as someone who saw dozens of startup-mentor relationships as part of ReaktorX, the Warsaw-based acceleration program I co-founded in 2016.

Where do you find the right mentor?

Firstly, be cautious about engaging with anyone who self-proclaims themselves as a mentor on linkedin or twitter. Good mentors don’t usually run around the town with a “mentor’’ badge. The best mentors are experienced entrepreneurs or experts with deep industry knowledge. They are super hard to reach. Their schedule is filled months in advance. You need to work hard to get them onboard. Fortunately, most successful entrepreneurs are happy to help newcomers and, with enough persistence from your side, they will eventually find those 30 minutes of their time to have a coffee.

I met Chris at one of the early Warsaw startup events, years before I thought about starting my own business. He was a natural person to touch base with when I started Filmaster mostly because he was the only approachable guy who knew anything about startups and funding in Warsaw in 2010. With Mark things were tougher. To get to know him I used his intern who was an early adopter of my consumer movie site. When I got his attention with our recommended product I asked for a phone call. We talked for about 30 minutes and he invited me to have a more serious chat in his office, so I immediately booked a ticket to London and met him at Vue Entertainment HQ where he was heading the marketing department at the time. A few months later he joined Filmaster as a chairman of the board and became one of the key people in our team.

How do you convince a mentor to come onboard?

Best mentors only engage with a limited number of startups either by themselves or via top acceleration programs. In extreme cases you’re going to be the first founder to convince them to engage with a startup. So how do you do that if all you have to offer is your deck and a lot of passion?

The answer is: do your homework! Make sure you understand what they are looking for. It might be counter-intuitive, but mentor-mentee is not a one-sided relationship. In order to engage with the best mentors, you need to prove you can provide value. Whether it’s insights into a completely new market or technology, your unique network or your skills that the mentor might want to pick up, there is definitely something they expect from you. Whatever it is, make sure you know the value you provie before you book that coffee table. In many cases you only have one shot.

But don’t engage with a mentor just because you’ve been told they are best in industry. Work with mentors who truly believe in you and who you truly admire. They don’t necessarily need to be fully onboard with your idea. That rarely happens. But they do need to trust you as a founder and believe that you will make this work, one way or another, with their help or without it. And don’t worry! Once you’re done drinking that flat white, you will know straight away if there is a match and whether or not it makes sense to follow-up.

What do mentors actually do?

Mentors are not your unpaid employees. Neither they are your board or co-founders. They are closer to a “business friend”, someone you can honestly talk to and someone who is always on your side, no matter what.

Mentors generally do four things:

  • provide feedback, specifically honest negative feedback about your ideas and actions, but not by telling you what to do,
  • introduce you to their network, opening some doors that seemed always shut,
  • give mental support, not something you think you’ll need when starting your business, but trust me, it will come to you one day or another,
  • and give perspective how are things looking from the outside of your tower.

Treat your mentors as a special forces unit. Don’t bother them with the stuff you can handle yourself, but rather focus on the key challenges you know you need help with, like getting a dinner with someone who can be your big customer, partner or investor. Don’t be afraid to contact them when you struggle hard. They should be there for you as they’ve been in your shoes many times and are among the few that understand what you’re going through.

How do you manage your mentors?

Let’s say you found your dream mentors. How do you engage with them? First of all do those two things:

  • agree on responsibilities — write down what you expect from them and what their expectations are, time commitment and compensation (more about that in the next paragraph), have this on paper!
  • set up regular meetings — it’s essential to meet regularly, at least once a month to keep your mentor up to date.

Mentors are your business partners just as your co-founders, employees or investors. Treat them seriously!

How do you compensate mentors?

Never compensate your mentors with money. Mentors are not consultants. Mentors are there for you for the long run. They spend quality time with you because they believe you can be successful together, not to get some extra pocket money.

Give mentors 0.5–2% stake in your company, vested for 2–4 years time. The actual number depends on the stage of the company when you engage a specific mentor as advisor, your market and the value of the mentor. You should aim for the best and compensate them accordingly.

What are you waiting for?

Go out, talk to people, get introductions and find the right mentor for your startup!

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If you are a first-time founder looking to boost your business I encourage you to apply to ReaktorX, a mentor-driven acceleration program.

Apply to be part of the 5th batch by March 22nd: https://app.vestbee.com/org/reaktor