Mentorship is a key ingredient of many successful startup journeys. By working closely with people who have been there before, startup founders gain wisdom and insight that can mean the difference between success or failure. Using mentors effectively, however, requires a set of skills few entrepreneurs practice or prepare for. It’s not something most mentors prepare for, either. Without careful, mindful consideration of what an entrepreneur truly needs in a given moment, getting off track is incredibly easy to do.
Case in point: After polishing off the first draft of this post reflecting on my own experience starting two companies, I let the content sit for a day to mull over anything I might have missed and headed out to mentor a new startup in town. While there, I found myself breaking my own rules about mentorship. (More on that later.)
So, how do you get the most out of a mentor relationship, when even mentors aren’t always sure how to give you the best value?
1 Know that you are the captain of the ship.
Starting a venture requires exploring many new possibilities for your product and your market, while simultaneously raising capital, securing partners or vendors, building a brand, growing your team and, hopefully, making sales. Having a team of mentors to help navigate your new venture through uncharted territory is important and extremely valuable, but there’s only room for one vision at a time. Even if you’ve never run a company before, or if you are much younger than your mentors, it doesn’t serve you to defer to them. The decisions are yours.
2 Find mentors who ask questions, rather than provide answers.
You are the new expert in your company– making decisions must go through that lens. Questions can lead you to answers that are suitable to your needs, or make you aware of new possibilities. “Answers,” on the other hand, might not be relevant or fit your needs, or can lead you down a dead end path. How many startup companies got advice not to start, expand or follow their ideas that are successful now?
Airbnb was turned away by several potential investors due to their business model and for the fact the two cofounders were designers. Precisely their design and breakthrough model made them successful. By definition, every innovation is new and unique, and requires you to navigate ambiguous and uncharted circumstances. So you don’t want someone telling you what they did 5 or 10 or 20 years ago with a different product, and calling that the right option for you. Which brings me to the rule I broke.
3 Don’t get caught up in war stories.
As a mentor, when someone asks about my experience, it is difficult not to answer those questions with a war story. It’s also difficult not to assume my stories, successes or failures are applicable. My experience may not help the mentee because the timing, environment, product, market and opportunity all combine to create very different circumstances.
Be careful what you wish for if you ask a mentor for their own experiences. While there are often lessons to be learned from the past, realize they aren’t recipes for the future.
4 Find mentors who believe in you AND challenge you.
It’s a big boost to the ego when a well known and successful mentor agrees to work with you. But mentorship is not a popularity contest. You’re looking for best fit for you. If your mentor doesn’t love the work you’re doing, they won’t advocate for you and they won’t give you their best effort. That’s just human nature. Pick mentors who can guide you and help you explore new connections, opportunities, and overcome barriers. You need a team who will challenge your most basic assumptions, not just cheer your efforts.
5 Know your mentors’ strengths (and limitations).
Find mentors that have an array of expertise different than yours. This can open the door for contacts, partners and varying perspectives. If you know nothing about PR/marketing, for example, then bring someone in who can ask the right questions to help you know what you don’t know. But realize that individual may not be the right person to advise you on decisions about your cap table. Speaking from personal experience, it’s really hard to say, “I don’t know.” Yet that’s one of the most important traits in a mentor: they realize they don’t have all the answers, but they are committed to helping you find them.
6 Manage your mentors; don’t let them manage you.
It takes practice (and confidence), but leading a group of mentors or individual meetings to catch them up on progress and target your specific needs and concerns is a much-needed skill. It gives you better outcomes and respects the time and interests of your mentors. So plan every meeting in advance. Know what you need. Lead with your most pressing questions. Value their time and expertise and specifically leverage that by having clear asks and clear questions. And when you don’t have anything to meet about, keep them in the loop, anyway. Engaged mentors will feel more invested and have more energy to step up and support you when you need it most.
Mentor relationships are a vital part of the startup experience, but the mentor label doesn’t bestow special skills or abilities to anyone. You’re still the captain of the ship. The more clarity you have about how your mentors can help you, the better equipped you’ll be to take full advantage of all they have to offer.
Image credit: Michael Cannon