The 3 Types of Mentors Who’ve Helped Me as a Startup CEO
Looking back on my experience so far as CEO of Plato, I’m well aware that our accomplishments are not ours alone. We owe so much to the mentors who have stepped in to help us along the way. In fact, it was my personal experience with mentorship that led me to create Plato, a company that provides mentorship to engineering managers. When I think about the people who have influenced me and the trajectory of Plato, I see three distinct types of mentor: the “Advisor”, the “Peer” and the “Expert.”
In the spirit of continuing this cycle of mentorship and knowledge sharing, I’d like to offer a few stories to illustrate who these types of mentors are and how other startup CEOs can benefit from seeking them out.
Type 1: The “Advisor”
The Advisor is the person who springs to mind when you imagine the typical mentor. It’s someone who has a depth of knowledge, experience, and connections. This is a person who has been publicly acclaimed for their success and who is willing to impart their wisdom and advice on people who are at an earlier stage of their career.
With an Advisor, your relationship is based on trust. Generally, you trust this person because of their track record (you know they have been successful in the past), they’re recommended to you by someone else you know and trust, and your interaction with them gets to the heart of a real pain you are experiencing. Even after a short initial conversation, the Advisor seems to understand exactly what you are going through and offer meaningful insights.
Advisors can vary throughout the different stages of your career or company. I can see three different phases so far for my company. The mentor who helped me start the company (Boris Golden), the one who helped us get to product/ market fit (Michael Seibel), and now the one who is helping us build a company (Jason Lemkin).
I’ve been lucky to have many Advisors, but I’d like to share a few anecdotes that illustrate my recent experiences with Advisors.
As an alumnus from Y Combinator, I’ve had the opportunity to work with Michael Seibel. In a recent post, I shared Plato’s company history, but I’ll recap a few key moments here. In 2016, we participated in a class at Y Combinator and were able to raise $2 million in funding. At right around the same time, we lost all of our developers. So we found ourselves at a major crossroads: Should we follow the typical Silicon Valley advice to hire like crazy so that we’d burn through our $2 million more quickly? Or should we conserve our funds while we focused more on product/market fit, revenue, retention, etc.?
We had a call with Michael — and since we were in France at the time, it took place at around midnight for us — to ask his opinion. We told him that we were getting some advice to burn through our VC funds more quickly, but at the same time we had calculated that we could be more conservative with our spending and keep the company running for five years. In that single, late-night (for us), 45-minute conversation, Michael shared an insight that changed the trajectory of our company. He told us that investors would always encourage us to burn through money because they want their portfolios to be full of big wins and failures (rather than slow-building successes). He said, “You have five years to find product/market fit. That’s more than any entrepreneur could dream of. It’s the best thing in the world!”
This advice was so timely — we were still a small team at the time — and gave us the clarity to focus on developing our company and finding product/market fit rather than devoting too many resources to interviewing and hiring.
Similarly, we’ve been lucky to have Jason Lemkin invest in our company, and he’s been a Advisor whose advice has been invaluable. Earlier this year, I went to talk to him about where we stood and what our plans were moving forward. I had prepared a whole slide deck to show him, but after I gave him my one-minute pitch, he stopped me and told me that he didn’t need to see anything else. He loved the idea. He said he could completely understand the problem we were trying to solve, he loved the fact that it was based on our personal experience, and he saw a large potential market.
What I learned from this interaction was that validation from an Advisor can have an exponential effect on your company. Because Jason supported me, I felt more confident in what my entire company was doing and transferred that confidence to the rest of my team.
I realized that a single conversation changed my entire perspective and approach, and that’s why Plato mentorship focuses on engineering leaders. I’ve seen firsthand how leaders who receive mentorship can create a positive effect on the people they manage, the people those people manage, and therefore on your entire company.
Type 2: The “Peer”
While Advisors are excellent people to turn to when you have big picture questions, there’s someone else who is better suited to give you advice on more day-to-day operational concerns. I refer to this type of person as a “Peer” mentor.
Generally a Peer mentor is someone who has been in your shoes quite recently. They’re on a similar path, just a few steps ahead of you. In my case, I consider Nicolas Dessaigne, CEO of Algolia, and Mathilde Collin, CEO of Front, to be my peer mentors. Not only do they have companies that are a little more mature than Plato, but they’re also fellow French citizens, so we have that in common, too!
If I have a question about an immediate business need — like whether I should get a payroll system or accountant, salary for our first VP of Sales, hiring process for an Engineer, or how I can support employees on work visas — I turn to my Peer mentors.
In contrast with Advisors, generally my Peer mentors are not telling me precisely what I need to do. Instead, they tell me how they approached a problem or how they’d do something differently if they could do it over again. But these lessons are extremely helpful and have definitely saved me a lot of time and stress!
Type 3: The “Expert”
Finally, I believe that “Expert” mentors can help you solve a very specific problem you’re facing. This is the type of mentor you turn to when you need deep knowledge on a particular subject.
For example, I had a number of questions on whether it was the right time to hire a product manager (and if so, how I should approach this process). So I reached out to one of the mentors in the Plato community (through our own product), Jeremy Wight, Senior Engineering Manager at InVision. Jeremy’s depth of experience in product management — he’s been a product manager, co-founder, and engineering manager — meant that he could give me very detailed and specific advice.
Similarly, Guillaume Cabane, VP of Growth at Drift, has been a fantastic resource, helping us understand how to structure our website; providing benchmarks for traffic, conversion rates, and other key metrics; and suggesting growth objectives that we should set for ourselves.
One last example, at the moment when we were interviewing a lot of different Engineering Leaders to confirm the problem we were solving with Plato, Tristan Charvillat, Head of Design at BlaBlaCar, gave us invaluable advice on how to conduct user interviews. It changed the way we did our interviews with much more qualitative feedback, in-depth story-gathering, and unbiased judgment on how much it was a pain for them.
Everyone has their own areas of expertise and gaps in their knowledge. For CEOs, it’s important to be aware of your own gaps and actively seek out Expert mentors who can help you to fill them in. As with most other types of mentorship, you’ll likely find that even a short conversation with an Expert mentor will help guide you for weeks or even months afterwards.
A few final thoughts
I truly can’t overstate the importance of having mentors, especially in the early stages of your company. There are so many questions and problems you’ll encounter, and there are a lot of people out there who have been through what you’re experiencing. Don’t be afraid to seek them out! It’s always a pleasant surprise to see how willing most people are to share their knowledge and experiences. If you need help identifying and reaching out to particular mentors, don’t hesitate to get in touch. Perhaps Plato can help you and your team!