Do you calibrate your advice before you give it?

An excerpt from my book Mentor Impact — we found the mentors that truly changed startups, and we asked them how they do it.

You’d be shocked at how much startup advice gets given by folks who don’t actually know where the startup stands. Mentors leave content that they made a difference, but the startup’s polite nods don’t translate into action.

Before launching into advice, we found the bests mentors assessed:

  • How far along are they?
  • What’s on their mind? What’s their focus and psychology?
  • What resources do they have?

Good calibration reveals this so you know where you can help most. Knowledge Transfer is about making it happen, but Calibration is all about assessing what knowledge is best transferred now.

To get a feel for this, here’s what calibration looked like in practice when I first mentored an African startup, fictionalised to avoid revealing confidential information. My commentary in italics.

Mentor: “Hi, I’m Sal. I can help with building communities, remote teams, learning from customers, and speeding up tough decisions. How can I help? (A classic start, allowing the founder to decide where I’ll be most useful.)

Founder: “Maybe it’ll help if I start with a bit about us. We’re democratising mobile money with a suite of exchange services that empower Kenya’s consumers to control their own finances.” (This is quite a salesy start with little content, but it gives us an idea of their selling skill and their target market.)

Mentor: “Wow. I like that ambition. I’m not an investor so there’s no need to sell me. So I can help, could we start with what’s your actual product?” (Trying to step the conversation out of sales mode and set a more open, collaborative tone.)

Founder: “Sure. It’s a service to exchange mobile money, data and airtime across Kenya’s mobile networks. It works over the web and SMS.” (Much better; this gives us some real information.)

Mentor: “How far along are you guys?” (Looking for a sense of their stage.)

Founder: “We’ve been working on it for about 9 months.” (This is a typical sort of answer that doesn’t actually tell you anything. Go deeper!)

Mentor: “Have you launched?”

Founder: “We’re in beta.” (Okay, so now we know they have a semi-working product at least. We still need more so I’ll ask about traction.)

Mentor: “Great! How many people are using it?”

Founder: “We have several thousand customers.” (This hard number gives you a sense of their stage. But the term customer is vague so we can learn more by exploring.)

Mentor: “What else are you measuring?”

Founder: “Revenue, which is rising, and number of transactions per day.” (The founder isn’t fully disclosing to us, but that’s okay for now. We’re learning where she’s focusing.)

Mentor: “Nice to see a startup making money! Any idea how much of that revenue growth is from repeat customers?”

Founder: “I’m not sure…” (There are very useful measurements she can learn from us, but we want save that for later and keep calibrating.)

Mentor: “No problem. We can come back to that later. I remember when I started my conference business. All I watched was ticket sales and cash. I was so worried about going bankrupt!” (Being inclusive — I’ve been there too! Welcome to the club!)

Founder: “We’re building our cash reserves. At the moment, if any of the phone networks change their policies, some of our exchange products become unavailable for a while and our revenue dips.” (A major worry revealed! And an indication of a key constraint: cash on hand.)

Mentor: “Does that happen a lot?” (Gauging the severity of the problem.)

Founder: “It’s happened a few times so far. We’re starting to know a few key people at the big phone companies now, but not everyone.” (Good find. This indicates an issue with the team’s skills and network.)

Mentor: “Who’s responsible for that? Actually, can you tell me the roles of everyone?”

Founder: “I handle the network relationships. I’m the CEO. Davis writes our code and manages the systems. Mercy is our web designer. Joseph runs our finances.” (You can infer a lot from the role definitions, like web designer, and also from the roles that are missing.)

Mentor: “What are your priorities this month?” (This feels like we already got the answer — build cash reserves, but this open ended version of the question allows us to double check and get the whole list.)

Founder: “We’re launching a new website because we’re getting a lot of press. And I’m looking into a new product line.” (It’s a common case — the team’s activities don’t align with their priorities. Another good find from calibration, but we’re not quite done yet.)

Mentor: “Interesting. Why’s that?”

Founder: “So we can earn more from the same customer base. Our marketing costs are pretty high right now, and the more exchange services we have, the easier we make life for our customers.” (Here we learn a key and immediate challenge. The new product line may not be where we think this founder should focus, but we have a sense of the founder’s phschology and underlying reasons.)

At this point, five minutes of calibration have exposed a number of immediate ways we can help. Plus we have a sense of how this founder thinks and they have a sense that we understand them.

What’s next?

If you’d like to dig into more mentoring techniques shared from Europe’s best, check out Mentor Impact — the book I wrote on the topic, after interviewing the startup mentors successful founders recommended to me.

Please share! Let’s make the most of all the mentors!