When I was getting started as a software developer, I had a great mentor (hi Steve!). I didn’t realize it or even acknowledge it as some form of “mentorship” at the time, but that’s exactly what it was. Steve helped reinforce good habits, encouraged me to be prolific with my work, push my tools — or write my own — and question the reigning conventions of the day. He also schooled me on classic video games and classic cars and was frequently humored by my preference for dynamically typed languages.
Years later, when I was building my first product business, I was fortunate enough to work with a wholly different set of mentors who helped me sort out SaaS business model questions, iterate on product quicker, learn how to talk to customers, and reign in my tendency towards feature frenzy. I still see many of these people today. Turns out a couple of them work here at SOSV.
I guess you could say that quality mentorship has had a big impact on both my personal and professional life.
When we talk about our accelerator programs at SOSV, we frequently say that they’re mentorship-driven. We’re not the only ones that do this, of course. Because the truth is that all top-tier startup accelerators are defined by the mentors and the community that they cultivate. This is particularly important, I think, of programs with deep focus in a vertical, like IndieBio (Biology), Food-X (Food Tech), Chinaccelerator (Chinese market), HAX (Hardware, IoT, connected devices) and URBAN-X (Smart cities, IoT). Our mentors bring their hard-earned experience, deep technical knowledge, and their industry credibility. But they also bring loads of creativity, contrarian thinking, and their fascination with breaking rules. They challenge our founders to build bigger and better things and expose them to new ideas. Our programs simply wouldn’t work without them.
We connect startups in our accelerators to mentors in the network and run mixers and other events to get them in the same room together. But there are lots of ways to find great mentors if you’re not part of an accelerator. Industry groups, meetups, and conferences are good places to meet potential mentors. And I’ve seen dozens of mentor relationships created through cold emails or LinkedIn introductions as well. Most smart people simply want to help other smart, ambitious people.
Some mentors will get more involved than others. In our programs, for example, a few will select a single company to work with on a weekly basis, while others will drop in once for an educational session and some Q&A, and then answer a handful of emails. Others aren’t physically available (or even in the same country) but will jump on a call, video chat, or an email as needed to address specific asks. But the commonality they all share is being invested in the success of the startups they work with. And they do it without any promise of compensation. They do it because they enjoy it.
Yep. They’re weird like that.
We work with hundreds of mentors. We get to see them interact with founders every single day. The companies who get the most out of these relationships do a number of things really, really well. Far better than I ever did! Here are some simple things I’ve observed them doing, that you can do to make sure you’re getting the most out of your mentors:
- Be Open. In addition to talking about the things you think you’re doing well, it’s important to be candid about your problems and failings. Know how and when to ask for help, and never be ashamed. There are no stupid questions. It may be a cliche, but it’s still true. Your mentors have most likely been in similar situations to where you are now, and someone probably helped them through it — or they learned the hard way (and they probably have the welts to prove it). But they can’t help you if they don’t know the real status of your product or business.
- Be Intellectually Honest. Often times the best advice is hard to hear, because it’s brutal. That new redesign you just launched? Your UX mentor says it’s a goat rodeo. It’s jacked. It’s unusable. But she can point out seven things you can do to mitigate the damage. Be open to hearing difficult things. And know that your mentors aren’t infallible either; some of the advice they give you may not be right for you or your business. When this happens, be able to explain crisply why you disagree. A great mentor will probably argue with you if they’re unconvinced, but the best mentors have all done this themselves, and they understand just as you do that it’s ultimately your business. Companies with many mentors will likely receive conflicting advice (affectionately referred to as “mentor whiplash”). This is natural. Listen to what they have to say, but use your own best judgement when deciding what to act on.
- Follow Through. When you commit to do something, do it. Show your mentors that the conversations you’re having are helpful by acting on those conversations. If they help you sketch out a feature concept, flesh it out. Be accountable. Set a time to review the result with them. Give them an early version of the feature to play with and provide feedback. If they connect you with someone, follow up.
- Be Respectful. Your mentors are busy people. And yeah, you’re busy too. I know. But don’t miss meetings or phone calls, or dismiss unanswered emails that need replies. Don’t be 20 minutes late to meetings. Remember that your mentors are volunteering their time. There are a lot of other things they could be doing. If you’re not respectful of their time, they’ll stop making time for you.
- Be Relevant. Mentors come in many shapes and sizes. Some are experts in user acquisition. Others may have deep experience in electrical engineering, food science, industrial design, marketing, manufacturing, or retail sales. Understand what they’re good at, and how they can help you. Do your homework (LinkedIn, AngelList, et al), know their background, and make your asks relevant. Don’t ask a former CTO for an enterprise SaaS software product how to ship food products internationally…unless he’s done that — maybe he has!
- Be Specific. When you sit down with your mentor, set expectations that you’ll have some specific asks — concrete things you’d like help with. Maybe this is reviewing your business model. Maybe this is reviewing some code! Or maybe it’s making some introductions. Make sure they feel comfortable with these asks. If they’re not comfortable, find out why, and ask what you can do to make them feel comfortable. Your mentors need to be your biggest advocates. If you ask your mentor for an introduction and they’re not willing to associate themselves with you publicly, you’re doing something wrong. Stop that!
- Communicate Well. This is one of the single most important things you can do. Send scheduled (weekly or monthly) emails to all your advisors, mentors, and other stakeholders. SOSV GP Shawn Broderick has a great template for that here. Keep the emails short, but let them know what’s going on with your business, what challenges you’re facing, what battles you’ve won. And always include an ASK. Even if it’s a simple request, like a referral, a tweet or Facebook like; keep them engaged. Measure your success by how many people you can get to reply to these updates.
- Reciprocate. Mentors are volunteers; they don’t expect to get paid. But they do, of course, want to get something out of the relationship. Generally, it’s personal satisfaction and creative energy, and having a hand in helping you develop as a founder. Think a bit about what you can do for your mentor in return for their work — all relationships work best when they’re bi-directional. At very least, treat them well, be thoughtful, and make sure to thank them and include them in your victories. You may want to consider giving your most valuable mentors a small equity stake in your business or adding them to a board of advisors. Or at least buy them a cookie once in awhile. Unless they’re gluten-free. Then maybe try something else.
Finding mentors is a great way to learn from others’ experience, validate your product, and ultimately improve your chances of success as a young startup. Mentors come in many shapes and sizes, and your experiences will differ from mine, and from the founders I’ve worked with in the past. But regardless of the industry you’re in, or the kind of people you engage with, if you communicate well, and are open and honest, you’ll get way more out of your mentors, while also making the experience much more enjoyable for them.
Remember: mentors aren’t paid. They do what they do because they like working with smart, ambitious people like you. So be smart. And ambitious. And there’s nothing wrong with being a little stubborn and arrogant too. But if you really want to get ahead, also make sure to be kind, thoughtful, and most of all, be mentorable.
Originally published at sosv.com on July 9, 2016.