Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Startup Mentors

I've had several Startup CTO Consulting sessions recently where it became apparent that the Founder needed help with the business and product as much or more than the technology.  I suggested that they should look for someone like me, but on the business end.  Then we discussed how they could go about finding this startup business advisor.

Then I got an email that asked:

I'm leading the marketing efforts for an early-stage startup.  I recently completed an MBA, which I feel gave me a good basis in the fundamentals of building our brand from the ground up. However, I often wish that I had someone more experienced both in marketing and working in a startup environment that I could go to for advice. Do you have any suggestions for how to find a good mentor?

Great question and I believe that just like finding a Technical Advisor for your startup is critical, finding a good mentor is critical.

Mentor vs. Advisor

Generally when I talk about startup mentors and advisors, I distinguish them in terms of:

  • Mentor focus is You: 

    The marketing person above is looking for someone to help them with their personal challenge.  They want someone who understands their current role and can help them be successful there.  They will also be concerned about how this leads to their next role.  They may open doors to the next role.
  • Advisor focus is Your Business:

    The startup founders need help with the business and I'm advising them to find an Advisor who will focus more on the business then on them as a person.  They likely want someone who knows the industry and can open doors that can help the business.

These are not mutually exclusive and good mentors and advisors get into both. 

Finding Potential Mentors

You are looking for someone who is

  • A couple steps ahead of you in progression
  • Have worked in similar roles in similar kinds of companies
  • Local to you

For example, I'm looking for a marketing professional who's worked at a couple early-stage startups ideally one of these is B2B selling to advertisers and is located in Los Angeles area.

You should begin asking at networking events and people you know in the startup world.

For me, I'd use LinkedIn.  The challenge is that LinkedIn is not that great with finding people who were at early-stage startups.  So the way I would do it is to find examples of specific startups that have grown up locally and who marketed similar to how you plan to market.  Then you search for the people who were in marketing there early on.  Likely they've progressed, so it may be a pretty natural fit.  This can take some work, but its worth it.

This also avoids a common problem that will sometimes happen when you go the networking route.  People will suggest folks who are high profile.  They regularly speaks at conferences, used to work at Google, and have other similarly impressive aspects to their background.  That may sound good, but that doesn't make them a good mentor. 

Have they worked in similar kinds of situations?  Most of us are not Google.  An early-stage startup is a different animal.   From Why Every Startup Founder Needs a Mentor - And How to Find One

Don’t just fall in love with someone’s reputation, perceived celebrity or name. Identify someone who could be directly relevant to what you want to do, or who is pursuing a similar vision. And someone who is likely to have the time and the inclination to help you.

Mentor Progression

To me this is a complex problem, it's a bit like dating/marriage.  You are the person who wants to commit but you have no idea if the other party is going to be willing to commit to you. 

I don't believe that you should go out saying to a potential mentor that you are looking for a mentor.  While that's open and honest, you know how it works out if you bring up commitment too early.  And I'm not alone.  In How to Find and Keep Your Ideal Mentor:

Once you’ve identified an ideal mentor, you need to create the relationship that houses the mentorship. Here’s a little secret about finding mentors — nobody has time to mentor you. And they probably lack interest initially. If you’ve ever sought out mentors, you’ve probably found that many of them were reluctant to make the commitment and ran when they heard the word “mentor.”

So, where do you start?  For me, its coffee?

Can I buy you a coffee and talk to you about my challenges?

Or in the case of the LinkedIn outreach:

Hi John,

I'm leading the marketing efforts for StartupRoar, an early-stage startup that sells to B2B advertisers.  We are doing well, but have some interesting challenges.

It looks like you were in a similar kind of role at XXX and you likely had some of the same challenges. 

Would you be open to getting together for coffee and talk about my challenges and how you addressed them before?



If you are working on something interesting and you ask nicely, there are a lot of people who are willing to have the conversation.  And sometimes that grows into more conversations.

If you've talked to a bunch of people and no one is willing to get coffee with you, then that's a sign that you are working on something that's not interesting or you've not done your homework.

At the end of your first coffee, if things have gone well, I like to say

This was great.  I really appreciate your time.  I've got a lot of great ideas and things to do.  Would you be open to getting together again at some point as I continue down this path?

That's right, you begin to set up your second date right at the end of your first date. 

Accelerator / Incubator Mentors

Most accelerators and incubators have a long list of potential mentors.  I'm a mentor at Start Engine and Founders Institute LA.  I want to warn you that just because you are going into one of these programs doesn't mean you will find a mentor.  It means you have easy access to people who could become a mentor.  You still have to do the work of connecting with these people and turning them into an actual mentor.

In Startup Mentoring, The Socratic Way, Fred Destin tells us:

The faster you can get past the pitch phase ("let me convince you that my idea is great")to the constructive phase ("let me exchange with you to make this thing better"), the more benefit you will both derive from the interaction.

I've been in lots of conversations where the founder is just pitching me.  This happens a lot at the incubators / accelerators.  I'm thinking I'm in the meeting trying to help.  All we get are pitches and most often there's not opportunity for a startup to say, "I could use some help with X."

We all have challenges - lots of challenges.  Be open about your challenges, especially when you are talking to a potential mentor. 

You still need to tell them about your challenges and start with a meeting/coffee.

Let me stop here, because if you are in a program like this, then just go over to Ben Yoskovitz's post How to Maximize the Value of Mentors in Accelerators.

Do Your Homework

I worked on a startup project with Stedman Graham and when he was doing a presentation for a group of teachers, he said something similar to this CNN interview that really stuck with me:

Everybody's equal because we have 24 hours. The question becomes, "What do you do with your 24 hours?"

He's talking about making life choices, but anyone who's worked in a startup knows that there are always a million things to do and we constantly make choices about where we will spend our time.

The same is true of your advisors and mentors.  So show respect for their time by doing your homework before you ask them questions.

I wrote about this a long time ago in Questions Before You Ask.  In that case, I was talking about the homework you should do before you reach out through LinkedIn for a question. 

There's a ton of information out there, so if you have a particular situation, make sure you've:

  1. Searched for Answers
  2. Keep a List of What You've Found
  3. Read through What You Find
  4. Compose What You Find Into a Preliminary Answer
  5. Figure Out What the Real Question Is
  6. Ask the Real Question

If you are asking your mentor questions that shows you've not done your homework, you will likely lose access to that person's time.  They will push you to do your homework the first time.  The second time, say goodbye.

Additional Resources

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