Here’s a basic truth about founding a startup: You don’t know everything you need to know. In fact, you probably only know a fraction of what you need to know to be successful. But don’t worry — you don’t have to go it alone. This is where a startup mentor comes in.
“For a really early stage company, mentors are a great source of industry advice and expertise, particularly if you don’t have direct expertise in that particular area,” Sapna Shah, Principal at Red Giraffe Advisors and startup mentor for XRC Labs, The Monarq Incubator, and TrendSeeder, tells Startups.co. “As well as executive coaching advice — perhaps you’ve never been a CEO before, and you’ve never had to manage people in this way.
Knowledge is one of the greatest things a startup business mentor can impart — but they can also help you focus when you start getting lost. Vanessa Liu, COO of Trigger Media and mentor with the Monarq Incubator, knows all about that moment.
“A lot of times when you’re running a startup, you’re so deep in the weeds,” Vanessa says. “Having someone who can pull you back and help you think about doing things — it can really excel the business.”
But a mentor isn’t someone you should just listen to unequivocally. There are certain times when you absolutely should listen to your startup advisor, and others when you really shouldn’t.
Mentors don’t just materialize out of thin air like Glinda the Good Witch. You choose them or are assigned to them by a program for a reason, so chances are you should listen to what they have to say — most of the time.
“If they have a business mentor, presumably they have them because they think they have a certain expertise in a vertical where they’re trying to expand both their knowledge and their market opportunities,” Tracy Chadwell, Founding Partner at 1843 Capital, and mentor for the startup accelerators Monarq and TechStars, tells Startups.co. “So I would think that if they have that mentor, they should start to listen to them — but you don’t throw common sense out the door.”
What does that “common sense” look like? There’s one topic that both mentees and mentors seem to agree you should always listen to your business mentor: It’s whatever it is they’re best at.
“Listen to the advice that is grounded in the mentor’s area of expertise, especially if it is something you as a founder don’t have a background in,” Claire McTaggart, founder of SquarePeg, tells Startups.co. “This can be marketing, business development, sales, PR, etc. Advice on strategies and tactics that have worked is always worth considering.”
In addition to advice, startup mentors are great for connecting to you to their networks. If someone is in the position to be mentoring, chances are they’re connected to some pretty great people who could do a lot for your startup as you get going.
“For a very early stage startup, the two types of advice that I have found most helpful from a mentor are operational/tactical advice or making introductions,” Claire says. “There is so much out there in terms of strategy and inspiration that any founder can read online. But it’s difficult to get tactical advice that is personalized to your business and growth stage. I find that mentors willing to get into the weeds are helpful early on.”
But not all advice is created equal — and not all startup mentors give great advice, all of the time. So when should a founder not listen to their startup coach?
“I think all the time!” Vanessa says. “There’s only so much that I can get to know about a business if I only have a short time with them. They’re obviously the ones who know their business, inside and out. But outside-in, there’s only so much I know. I would want them to not take everything I say at face value but to think about; really reflect on where they are in the business. I can’t judge them, because I’m outside it.”
“It isn’t their company,” Kristina says. “At the end of the day, go with your gut instincts.”
In addition to not knowing your company as well as you do, some startup mentors might not be in it “for the right reasons.” The right reasons: Helping your company succeed and advancing the industry. The wrong reasons: They want a piece of your pie.
“There are a lot of well meaning people who are mentors or advisors who can be helpful on the surface, but you have to make sure you understand what their motivations are,” Tracy says. “If they’re just kind of bored and want to come in and run your company — that’s not such a great thing. You want to have someone that respects you and respects your level of expertise as well.”
If you’re participating in a startup accelerator, another issue arises: multiple mentors. And with multiple business mentors comes multiple streams of advice, some of which might be contradictory.
“You’re assigned multiple mentors — and they may not always agree,” Sapna says. “They may give you advice that’s 180 degrees apart. In the end, it’s your company and you have to make the decision for what is right and what your vision is. What you’re passionate about. When multiple mentors’ advice clash, that’s when you have to decide who to listen to, who not to listen to. Or should you listen to your own gut?”
Experience-based advice is great, but sometimes advice can be too abstract or high level to be truly useful.
“High level suggestions on changes to the product and/or business model that aren’t based on experience or evidence should be ignored,” Claire says. “Many people will listen to something and state an opinion based on a preliminary reading or interpretation. It’s important when it comes to product development and management that founders are using a logical approach based on data and observations from customers/users, and not just suggestions.”
“I’ve found that advice on new ways your product can be used or future business models can sometimes sidetrack you from your current goals,” Rachel says. “While it’s easy to get caught up in their excitement, it can often jeopardize your focus.”
Don’t automatically assume that someone’s experience or title means that they should be trusted automatically. Like all in any relationship, that trust has to be earned before it can be given.
“Don’t follow any advice unless a) you had the idea yourself already and think it’s great; b) you’ve heard it many times from many people; or c) you really trust the person,” Travis Wentworth, founder of language learning site Langu tells Startups.co. “That’s the hardest one, deciding who to trust. Often you’ll automatically trust people with big titles or who might give you money. Learning to resist that is important.”
There are a couple of obvious places that founders can look for a startup mentor. For instance, your own networks, LinkedIn, Micromentor.org, as well as Accelerator and incubator programs are good places to look.
But where are some slightly less expected places you might be able to find a good mentor for your startup?
“There are a lot of people in the baby boom sector of the generation who have been very successful in their careers and who are still very engaged and active, but aren’t necessarily looking for a full-time job anymore,” Tracy says. “So it’s kind of a perfect match.”
But if those people aren’t a part of your network — and a lot of people’s networks do tend to be of people around their own age — how do you connect with that baby boomer experience? Simple.
“Ask people who are older than you to intro you to their most successful friend,” Kristina says.
If you went to college or university, chances are your school has an alumni network.
“Alumni networks are a very strong source, and they’re not utilized enough,” Vanessa says. “A lot of the times because a lot of universities aren’t set up in a way that it’s easy to find people. But I think that when you have something in common with one another, that’s a really easy way to connect. A mentorship relationship has to have some type of chemistry if it’s not in a formal program.”
Unfortunately, a lot of schools don’t have very robust official networks. But the great thing these days is that alumni can create their own networks. Vanessa recommends looking on Facebook and for listservs that serve your college community.
If you want to get the best results out of your business mentor relationship, it’s a good idea to approach them in a way that works for your both of you.
“The key is to be respectful of the fact that I have a full-time job that takes 110 percent of my time already,” Tracy says. “I’m always happy to help, but it has to be a short question. It’s much tougher if someone asks ‘Can you take a look at my deck and revise it?’ That’s asking too much.”
So before you even pick up the phone or open Gmail, take time to think about exactly what you’re going to ask.
“The more specific the question, the better the feedback,” Sapna says. “General questions like ‘What do you think of the business?’ are almost impossible for a mentor to answer. We don’t know enough to answer the question. Much more specific questions like ‘I need to sell to billion dollar enterprise companies and I don’t know where to start. Who would be the first person to look for in such a company that would have the ability to move this process along internally?’”
Finally, be real.
“I think a lot of it is to be really genuine and authentic and just up front about where that person can help,” Vanessa says. “You don’t want to beat around the bush and say ‘I want to get to know you; you want to get to know me…’ Just say what it is you need help with.”
Look, founder, you might feel like a super human sometimes, smashing your to-do lists left and right. But no one person can do it alone. You know that phrase, “It takes a village to raise a child?” Well, it takes a village to raise a startup.
Do yourself a favor. Find at least one startup mentor who cares about your business and knows what they’re talking about. It’s one of the best gifts you could give your company, at any stage.
Emma McGowan is a full time blogger and digital nomad has been writing about startups, living with startup people, and basically breathing startups for the past five years. Emma is a regular contributor to Bustle, Startups.co, KillerStartups, and MiKandi. Her byline can also be found on Mashable, The Daily Dot's The Kernel, Mic, The Bold Italic, as well as a number of startup blogs.
Follow her on Twitter @MissEmmaMcG.