One of the lessons I’ve learned over years of mentoring is that everything you can find out about a startup or founder is out of date! Virtually all mentoring programs require applications from founders. I used to read these applications assiduously in preparation for the mentoring meeting, only to find that the company I was mentoring bore no resemblance to the company that applied for mentorship. Why is that? Well most of those applications were done weeks if not months before the meeting and the rate of change in a startup is not linear, it’s exponential. And the earlier the stage of the startup, the faster the rate of change.
The same goes for web sites. Most founders are far too busy to keep their web site up to date – assuming they even have one. And even if they have the time, given that many founders are anxious about having their ideas stolen, web sites present only the public face of the company – the rest of the organism kept hidden from public view.
So mentorship applications, web sites, and executive summaries all degrade rapidly with time and in fact often become misleading. Generally the younger the company the more rapid the rate of change. So while I have had a hard time breaking the habit of inhaling any information I can find about my prospective mentee, I’ve learned to start the relationship at square zero.
Many founders come to their first mentor meeting with a pitch deck that is more up to date than their other documents – but even pitch desks are not current.
So I’ve found the best way to start a mentoring meeting is with introductions. Not only does this give me useful information on the founder’s background, but also enables me to evaluate how well they can present without the aid of a slide deck. And it also gives me a chance to introduce myself and highlight what elements of my experience may be most relevant to the founder’s venture. This is also a good time to explain that mentors, unlike venture capitalists, strictly adhere to the confidential non-disclosure agreements they have signed with the parent organization.
Once we are past the introductions the next step is simple: “Tell me your story.” Whether that story is focused on starting a company or creating a product is a “tell” – are they in it for the long term, the years it may take to build a successful company? or are they looking for a quick hit? Build an app or service and sell it ASAP. There’s no right answer, but the founders should be clear – and in agreement – about the objective of their venture.
Even when a founder tells their story with a deck you need to be careful to check – is this deck up to date? When was it prepared? And was it done for an investor, for a business plan competition, or just for the mentor meeting (a rare occurrence)?
The bottom line is when reviewing a founder’s materials – application, web site, or pitch deck – or even hearing their story in real time, don’t assume the information is always up to date or accurate. The most common element that changes is the status of founders. It’s always advisable to ask, “is he or she full time with the company?” Often, especially in the case of students, the answer is no – they are also pursuing a degree. And even if they aren’t a student, one or more founders may have a “day job” to pay the rent. Or their joining the company may be conditional on a Series A round or some other event.
You can’t successfully mentor a founder if you are relying on out of date, inaccurate information. If you’re in doubt about any element of their pitch – business model, status of the founders, or their perceived competition – ask!
The founder’s story is the foundation on which you build your mentoring relationship, so make sure you have a solid foundation from the start.
And one piece of advice you can give your mentees is that when they are doing a competitive analysis don’t rely on web sites or press releases – better information might be found on social media or best yet, via that old standby, the grapevine.