Off the sidelines and into the game: From startup mentor to startup founder
I’ve been a startup mentor for the last 5 years now. I started as part of my old day-job, working for a large bank in London, where I would advise FinTech companies on how to build products that would appeal to banks either as customers or as partners.
Then later when I moved to Athens, I got involved with the incubation programs at the Orange Grove, as a mentor specializing in financial modeling and budgeting for early stage startups.
I think for anyone who spends time advising others, there’s always the urge to take things upon yourself and to get yourself into the game. After a while, you start to think, can I take my own advice and prove that it actually works?
But you need to think carefully and be fully prepared, because the skillset of a good founder and a good mentor are two completely different things.
I can tell you first hand, as I recently took the leap to start my own project, Epilocal, a few months ago.
What makes a good mentor
There are lots of opinions out there when it comes to mentors for startups, and what makes one better than another. But I think the general wisdom is summed up pretty well in this blog post from a VC, with some of the key advice being:
- Advise, but do not force
- Support networking
- Give feedback, but do not criticize
- Don’t be a generalist
Basically, to be a good mentor, you should bring a network and specialist expertise, and then challenge the entrepreneur to think, rather than providing any answers on your own.
These skills can be found in a wide range of successful business professionals, who may not have ever done anything entrepreneurial themselves. Which isn’t a bad thing — they are offering valuable expertise on specialist topics or maybe giving you insight into your target market.
For example, during my time in banking, I could be a valuable mentor to FinTech startups because I had insight into how big banks worked inside — even though I hadn’t worked in a FinTech before I could still offer them value.
To be a successful mentor, it’s all about identifying that narrow place where your deep expertise provides value to a startup. While veering off that narrow path is a recipe to become unhelpful or unwanted.
You’re not an expert anymore
Just the opposite is true if you’re itching to get into the game yourself and become a startup founder. Being a specialist is no longer optimal or sufficient, instead it’s all about generalist skills.
As a startup founder, especially if you are a solo-founder like I am, your range of skills and how you can effectively execute a variety of different tasks is more much important than how good you are at any one thing. My typical day can be anything from writing blog posts, coding my products, talking to potential customers, graphic design work for the images on my website, or recording and editing instructional videos.
It takes someone who is open to do a lot of different things, learn them quickly, and not be afraid to do things they aren’t proven in.
And that’s probably the biggest point of all — you need to be comfortable with the fact that you’re not an expert any more. You are executing and learning every day and you will probably make more mistakes in a week than you might have made in a year in your old job.
That’s all part of the change. For me, I’ve personally enjoyed it and I love the fact that I’m able to do such a variety of things on a day to day basis. Whether or not I make it into a success is still a question, but worst case, I can take all of my learnings and be a more rounded professional and a more understanding mentor!