The Importance of Mentors

Good mentors are critical to early stage founders and I think it’s important to highlight just how important they are.  In this blog post I’ll run through some of my thinking on why great business people don’t necessarily make great startup mentors, some common pitfalls and wrap up with why I think good mentors are more important than funding to early stage founders.

Let’s first define a startup and I’m going to call on two definitions.  Recently we heard from Steve Blank during our first Public Forum for 2014 that a startup is searching for a business model whereas a company is executing a known business model.

Dave McClure, on Quora, provides a bit more detail in stating that a startup is:

“A company that is confused about:

  • What its product is;
  • Who its customers are; and
  • How to make money.

As soon as it figures out all 3 things, it ceases being a startup and becomes a real business.”

The important thing to take from both of these definitions is that a startup is an entity in a temporary state of flux while it is searching for a business model and is yet to become a real business.  It is not executing a known business plan of the same product to the same customers over and over and over again.

So how does this all relate back to mentors? Great mentors can help you find a business model, become less confused about your product, customers and how to make money and turn your startup into a real business.

One problem that I’ve come across many times is successful business people who believe they are qualified to be startup mentors.  Business advice and startup advice are two very different things and require a very different skill set.  Business advice relates to executing (and enhancing) a known business model, not searching for one.

At this point I do wish to state that there are exceptions to the rule.  Some people can be both great startup mentors and business mentors but in many instances there is no overlap.  This may seem harsh on business people but it goes both ways – how many startup founders do you think have the skill set to run a listed company, communicate with shareholders and analysts, liaise with government, etc.  The answer is probably not many which is why a lot of startup founders are replaced as the CEO of their startup as it evolves into a larger business.  (That’s another blog post in itself!).

This problem is a particularly difficult one to handle for young first-time founders and I can speak from personal experience.  It is a particularly difficult problem for two reasons:

  1. Great business mentors (who are not startup mentors) do not know the difference between a startup and a business.  Therefore, they do not know that they are not qualified to provide startup advice.  They are unaware of their own shortcomings in this area.
  2. Successful business people talking to young, first-time founders can be quite intimidating as they believe that their advice should be taken at all times.  They’re likely to “have the answers” when a startup mentor is a lot more likely to understand that they don’t have the answers but can help you ask the right questions of the right people (customers) to find the answers.

Whenever I speak to a founder about mentoring I always tell them to take every piece of advice they get (obviously including mine!) with a grain of salt.  Nobody knows your startup better than you and you will receive a lot of different advice from different people.  Listen to people who want to give you advice with an open mind but you will need to figure out what advice works for you and shelve the rest.

When you do come across somebody who gives you advice that doesn’t work for you it is important to be gracious.  My mother has a great saying stuck to her office wall: “Tact is telling somebody where to go so nicely that they enjoy the trip”.  Keep in mind that these would-be mentors are in fact trying to help you even if it may be misguided and don’t burn any bridges.  Quite often all you have to say is that you’ll keep their advice in mind.  These would-be mentors could end up becoming customers or introduce you to future customers and become an evangelist for your startup.

Lastly and simply, great mentors are worth their weight in gold and more important that seed funding.  They’ll probably help you get your idea to a more advanced stage, in less time and for less money (perhaps for no money!) than what you’ll end up doing without them.  A practical example of how mentoring trumps seed funding is the concierge MVP which you can read about here.

Hopefully this post gives you a better idea of how to engage with mentors and avoid some mistakes that many entrepreneurs make.  If you’re looking for a mentor I encourage you to attend the MAP events where there are plenty of great mentors to meet!

Rohan Workman is the Manager of the Melbourne Accelerator Program and you can follow him on Twitter at @Roh_Workman.