The Story Of One Startup Mentor
Building a successful company is wicked hard. When creating a new business, you generally lack experience in one realm or another and you’re limited with how far you can go learning by your own methods. While you can navigate uncharted terrain alone, it’s not the quickest and most efficient way to go about building an elusive unicorn.
Any entrepreneur will appreciate the value of a startup mentor who has experience in areas you lack it, and who can potentially help supercharge you business. Since those early days of creating my first company, I’ve been lucky enough to work with some fantastic mentors and I now have the opportunity to give back what I’ve learnt along the way. I’m far from being a great mentor (or a writer come to think of it) but if I can help fellow entrepreneurs avoid making the same mistakes I’ve made then I know I’m doing something right. Below I’ve laid out seven steps which I try to follow before and during the mentoring process – looking forward to your comments below!
1. Be clear on you both want out of the relationship
In my world, and most likely some other humans out there, the majority of my problems arise from miscommunication. I’ve seen first hand a few mentor relationships end on a sour note because both partiers weren’t clear on what they wanted. Sounds familiar right? “I’m sure I told you I had a girlfriend?!”
As every startup mentor/mentee case is unique and given there isn’t a global rulebook of a mentor’s role and responsibilities, ensure that everything is clear before embarking on this monumental ‘journey’. As a mentor are you looking to be paid for your time or will you give up X hours for free per month? How much time can you commit per month? How do you think you can add value to the startup (contacts, experience, financing etc.)? If you see promise in the startup are you looking to invest? Make sure you nip this all in the bud before it grows into something malicious.
2. A successful mentorship requires time
You can’t expect to meet your mentee every six months and hope to have any useful impact on the company’s future. Things change quickly, and even more so in an early stage business. Regular contact is critical to guarantee that both mentor and mentee get the most value out of the relationship. I try and meet with the startups I mentor once every couple of weeks but to each their own.
From the feedback I’ve had from numerous founders, this seems to be their biggest grievance. We all love hearing ourselves speak but the true nature of a good mentor is the ability to really listen. I’m not talking about staring into the distance when your wife is talking about the last episode of Beverly Hills Housewives but actually listening.
Ultimately you need to understand not only the person you are mentoring, but also the true nature of the problems they are having. Just as in a romantic relationship, if you don’t listen, you’re in for a hard time ahead. I for one don’t like sleeping on the floor.
4. Be specific, get to the root
So now that you’ve gone down in the record books as the best listener on the planet, its time to ask the right questions.
This is your golden opportunity to get to the route of the problem by asking specific questions with the goal of uncovering any potential deficiencies leading you to suggest a suitable course of action. Asking open ended questions are great for getting an overall vision of what’s going on but not so handy when you need to scrupulously think over an issue.
It’s also important to point out that it’s not just about asking questions on the business but also about the mentee. Who are they? Do they fully understand their strengths and weaknesses in regards to the project at hand? The more you understand about the person you are mentoring, the easier it will be for you to add real value.
5. Try not to rehash
Mentoring is dam hard work. You’l need all of your nerve cells on superdrive to help provide unique solutions specific to the business concepts you’re dealing with. Usually you only have a small amount of time to come understand the complex business problems at hand and to come up with a rapid fire solution.
Hold off from just rehashing experiences that have worked for you in the past. Each business scenario whether marketing, product development, customer value proposition and so forth is completely unique and needs to be meticulously analyzed. The idea is that from that comes a made to measure solution that should be continually rethought. Although you can apply certain frameworks to specific business solutions, it’s important to remember that there is no cookie cutter solution for every problem.
6. Don’t try and be a Jack-of-all-trades
As much as I’d like to be an expert on everything, I am not MacGyver, and neither are you. Or are you? If so, please write me here. Trying to convince your mentee that you were CEO, Product Manager, CTO, Marketing Manager and Chief Dreadnaught is going to be pretty hard to do. There are a lot of people out there with a hell of a lot of talent and experience but the majority will have some kind of domain expertise.
If you don’t feel like you can give the correct advice on a certain element of the business then I’m sure there is someone you know that can. Try and focus on utilizing the talents you have to the fullest. Although I’ve overseen Product Development, Marketing and numerous other parts of the business at ClubKviar, there are now people in the team with years more experience than me that could add more applicable value for any related problems.
7. You’re not the boss
As much as you’d maybe like to be, you’re not the boss. Although you might feel very strongly about the advice your giving, it’s the mentee’s decision to apply the advice you give or not. Leave the strong-arming at the door.
We all have our own technique and ways to manage our mentor relationships and we can add add value in different ways. Remember that mentoring is quite simply that, mentoring. None of has a crystal ball, so be honest when giving your opinions and hope that it can be of use. It’s extremely rewarding to see the impact your knowledge can have on a business.
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