Steve Blank, noted educator of entrepreneurs, has a superb video series about startups which is available on YouTube. One video in particular very clearly delineates the differences amongst mentors, teachers, coaches and advisors, and explains the value of each to the startup.
Mentors, teachers and coaches advance your personal career. If you want to learn a specific subject you find a teacher or take a class.
If you want to hone specific skills or reach an exact goal, hire a coach.
The one that founders sometimes forget is the mentor. If you want to get smarter and better over your career, find someone who cares about you enough to be a mentor.
A key point Steve makes about mentors is, “Mentors are a two-way street.” They think they can learn something from you in addition to liking you. And having been a mentor formally for over eight years and informally for many more years, I can’t emphasize this enough. I’ve learned a lot about fields I never would have entered myself, such as medical devices or bio-engineering and even more about founders and how they develop through the process of building a company. As Steve says, many founders will themselves eventually become mentors.
A favorite topic of mine is advisory boards and I often recommend that founders form and advisory board once they have solidified their business model enough to use it as filter in choosing advisors who can help their business be successful. Teachers, coaches and mentors help the founder to develop and succeed; advisory boards help the company to succeed. Boards may provide generic advice to the founders, VPs and even staff.
Steve recommends putting together an advisory board “as early as possible.” This is one point where we differ. Having formed advisory boards for each of the four venture backed companies I founded, my experience was that if you create an advisory board before you solidify your business model you can end up with advisors who don’t fit your company.
But his reasons for forming an advisory board are quite sound: get experienced advice to help you soft out whether or not your vision is a hallucination or not. Expand your circle of accumulated wisdom past your investors. Your investors or Board are not necessarily your advisors. They may lack the domain expertise you need. And the Board is your boss, not your advisory board.
Steve doesn’t really address how you find mentors, teachers, coaches and advisors. Much like finding your first employees, this comes down to using your personal network and the networks of your founders to find previous employers, professors, retired executives, and even peers who are willing to act as mentors or advisors. These days virtually every incubator or accelerator comes complete with a mentoring team. You can find many useful courses via MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses – from edx, Coursera, Udacity and others. Generally you will need to pay coaches. MOOCs are free, but exec ed courses from places like Harvard are decidedly not. Mentors and advisors are generally compensated by small stock grants.