Mentor/Founder Fit


I mentor for two different organizations at MIT, The MIT Venture Mentoring Service and the MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund Program.

These programs are very different, amongst other things VMS only offers mentoring while Sandbox provides grants up to $25,000. But both offer mentoring, in the case of Sandbox to student teams, in the case of VMS to students, faculty, alumni and staff.

Their systems for matching mentors to founders are where I find the biggest difference and the most difficulty for me, not being either a scientist nor an engineer. VMS emails out a list of ventures every week to its roughly 180 mentors and mentors can choose any, all or none that they would like to work with. But given the very large mentor pool often there is no match at all, other times I might have more than one mentoring session in a week.

But the key difference is that Sandbox assigns its mentors to the student teams. And this is where I have run into a real problem. After eight years I’ve found I can help most early stage ventures at VMS. Occasionally as they grow and develop they really need domain specific expertise which I lack, such as how to market video games, . So I step off the team and recruit a mentor with that domain expertise. Not a problem.

But this summer with Sandbox I found myself with three bio-engineering teams to mentor out of four teams. I have assiduously avoided signing up for medical device and bio-engineering startups with VMS, as they tend to be highly technical from the get-go and I have less than zero expertise and experience in those areas.

The saving grace for my Sandbox situation was I was teamed with a bio-engineering ninja who’s been teaching bio-engineering courses for 10 years and is in the process of building his own lab. Not only that, but  he has the two skills all good mentors must have: he listens very carefully and he asks great questions.

Eventually these teams do get around to business issues, where I can help them. Such as explaining “you don’t sell to a hospital. There’s a person or group within the hospital responsible for purchasing medical devices in your field – you need to find that person or group.”

For some reason I find this is a common problem with founders, they don’t seem to realize that companies and institutions are made up of people and it is those people who use their products, sign the purchase orders or influence the sale. For example, it comes as a shock to some founders that often influencers are sale blockers, not cheer leaders. So they must be won over just as much as the economic decision maker.

Long story, shorter: mentoring groups need to be just as diligent about mentor/founder fit as ventures are about product/market fit. Last year I mentored several Sandbox teams and was able to work with them all, as they were very early stage and weren’t wrestling with technical issues, but with business issues. For whatever reason this changed dramatically this year.

So I let my colleague handle the bulk of the mentoring for these bio-engineering teams and only participate when the team starts discussing how they are going to market, sell and support their product. But that has tended to be a small part of each meeting.

I’ve signed up to mentor post-docs through the I-Corps program, but it will be strictly focused on business, specifically using Steve Blank’s customer development methodology coupled with agile development. I’m a huge fan of Steve and his work and know it pretty well having watched his video series and read two of his books. So I don’t expect lack of domain expertise to be a problem. Having done a couple of mentoring sessions with post-docs, I can attest that brilliant and accomplished as they are, they need a lot of help on the business issues when it comes to founding a company.



Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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