If you followed Fred Wilson and Brad Feld’s blogs in the past couple of days, you saw they each provided a different opinion on whether the multiplicity of mentors that startups are exposed to during an Accelerator/Seed phase is a good or bad thing.
On one hand, Fred says to be cautious with mentor advice, and to take note instead of immediate action. On the other hand, Brad says, take the advice, but learn how to analyze it.
Both offer compelling arguments, but I wonder if the issue is not so much about the quantity, but rather about the quality of startup mentorship.
The quality of the mentoring can make a big difference for the startup, but good mentorship is not easy.
There are so many questions on an entrepreneur’s mind they wished could be easily answered, so here are some of them:
- Are we building the right product?
- Are we going after the right market?
- Is the market large or attractive enough?
- Are our assumptions correct or realistic?
- Do we have the right features?
- Are we moving at the right pace?
- Are we testing with the right users?
- Are these the right metrics to track?
- Are we going to the market with the right approach?
- Have we forgotten to think about something?
- What do we need to learn to be successful?
- What should we worry about?
- Can you help us in opening doors or spreading the word?
The main thing that Brad and Fred seemed to agree upon is that it is up to the entrepreneur to figure out how or when to take the advice, and above all, to listen to their market, but mentors don’t just provide advice or feedback.
Mentors can also be very specific with their contributions. For example:
1. Filling a Gap in your Skills
A mentor can help you fill a skills gap or an expertise that you may not have. Since most startups are lean at birth, they certainly will be lacking know-how in some functional areas.
2. Circumventing Mistakes
A good mentor is probably thinking 2 or 3 steps ahead of you in a given situation, because of their experience. They can walk you through their thinking process, and cut to the chase.
3. Sequencing your Actions
Often, what you do first, second, and third might be a determining factor in your success. For example, if you don’t nail the initial MVP fairly early, future iterations could become harder, later.
4. Expanding your Network
That’s probably the easiest thing, with the least amount of risk. You ask them if they know someone for something you need, or they volunteer it. If they can’t facilitate or find you an introduction, there is no harm is done.
5. Processing Market Signals
If it were so easy to listen to the market and interpret its signals, then more entrepreneurs would just do that, and have winning products all the time. Truth is you may need to inject some context for dealing with these data points, and that’s something that a mentor can provide. Maybe the mentor has been to that movie before, and they could offer an informed opinion on its most probable ending.
6. Helping with Challenges
Entrepreneurs already know what challenges they will have to surmount based on their assumptions or hypotheses. A mentor can work specifically on helping to parse and attack these challenges with them.
7. Trusted Guidance
Mentors must be trusted by their mentee, either because of their demonstrated field of expertise or because of some affinity that develops between them and the entrepreneur, because some common ground that was established.
A good mentor should also offer motivational help, because the entrepreneur will experience temporary moments of confusion and setbacks.
Can it be a little easier?
I know that the startup process is already full of ambiguity and uncertainty, but after doing it for so long, why can’t we be a little more deterministic in the way we help entrepreneurs increase their chances of success?
Mentoring is a process that is acquired or developed, so some mentors are going to be more effective than others. We have figured out the Lean process for starting a company, but why haven’t we figured out the education of a young entrepreneur a little more methodically, and with an added degree of discipline? And are we subjecting mentors to some training or mentoring process themselves, so they can become better mentors?
I think the top tier Accelerators have gotten pretty good at guiding and coaching entrepreneurs, and even some Universities are delivering some pretty comprehensive entrepreneurial curriculum (e.g. Harvard or Stanford).
But I often wonder if, as we increase the degree and rigor in knowledge transfer, in best practices and in lessons learned, does it become a little easier for entrepreneurs if they learned a few more tried and true principles, so they are gradually less subjected to the vagaries of mentorship during their apprenticeship?