Yesterday I had mentoring sessions with six companies in four hours – it was great fun and the entrepreneurs were all fantastic. What was different about it was: one, I was the only mentor (I’m used to team mentoring at MIT Venture Mentoring Service and group pitch reviews at the Social Innovation Forum), two; three of those sessions were F2F, the other three were on Skype. Having only done one Skype mentoring session before this was a new and interesting experience for me. Here’s what I learned:
- Yes, you definitely can mentor virtually or remotely, contrary to some people’s opinions. I got summaries back from a couple of the entrepreneurs already and it was clear that they heard and understood my advice and plan to act of some of it.
- It sounds rudimentary, but you need to pre-load the mentees contacts into Skype and have an assistant or someone text or email them to make sure they are on Skype at the time of their mentoring session. Otherwise you can waste valuable time making the Skype connection.
- Skype if far from ideal. We lost video on my end, so I could see the entrepreneurs but they couldn’t see me. Rather than take the time to try to fix the problem we decided to move ahead with just audio for me. That’s ok, I’ve been told I have a great face for radio!
- The setting for the entrepreneur and the mentor is really important. Both need to be absolutely quiet and free from interruptions. This should not be hard on the mentoring organizations’ end, but obviously it can be for the entrepreneurs, but a quiet background makes the conversation much more effective. Many entrepreneurs I work with are not native English speakers. They are all very fluent in English, but most have accents. Being somewhat hearing deficient, the combination of a noisy background and a strong accent can make it difficult for me to understand what the mentee is saying.
- Two screens work better than one. One of my mentees sent me his deck which I reviewed with him on Skype on my phone, while I could see his reaction – which was very passionate engagement in his project – on the laptop screen. Better yet, decks should be sent out in advance, just to make sure there are no technical glitches or time wasted downloading, etc.
- Remote mentoring works best with just one entrepreneur. It can and did work with two, but if you lose video it can be hard to tell who is talking and the session is less intimate with two people than with one person, whose face can fill the screen.
- You do miss the valuable body language of entrepreneurs. I’m not expert on this but I do look for when the entrepreneur leans forward (enthusiasm) or leans back or just sits up straight (not as excited or engaged).
- It’s harder to get to know the entrepreneur, as Skype doesn’t lend itself that well to the small talk that usually precedes F2F meetings.
- In one F2F session I had the mentee did a great job of sketching out a key component of his invention. While of course you can do that using Skype, its much harder to direct attention with the built-in camera in a laptop or desktop. So more planning is probably necessary if the entrepreneur wants to sketch things out in real time rather than just send a presentation.
In summary, I much prefer in person mentoring meetings. And I prefer to meet with the team vs. just one person. And I find team mentoring far more effective than individual mentoring. And the tech glitches were distracting. But with the right preparation and a more robust conferencing system, I have no doubt that remote mentoring can be made to work. Whether it can ever catch up to F2F is debatable but it certainly can be improved and be useful.