With the amazing rise of mentorship, driven in part by the success of incubators and accelerators like Y-Combinator and TechStars, has come a lot of advice on how to be a successful mentor. Since mentorship of technology startup founders is the focus of Mentorphile I like to pass on this received wisdom when I find it.
So here are six skill from the article How To Be A World-Class Mentor To Others by Tim Denning. Tim has a great preamble to his list, because it elucidates my prime motivation for mentoring: deriving my satisfaction from helping others succeed.
Becoming successful in your own right is one thing; where the real fulfillment starts to come from is when you can use your skills to help someone else achieve their dreams. Through helping someone achieve their dreams, you get a similar but more powerful result yourself.
Here’s his list, with as usual, my comments. Read the original article for Tim’s amplification of each skill.
1. Help them find what’s missing
Frankly this is something I’ve never seen in the many articles I’ve read on mentorship. What I often find missing in my mentees is a real understanding of what it takes to find, acquire, engage, and retain customers. I find that giving founders a firm nudge in the direction of getting out of the office and talking to prospective customers is the best thing I can do for them. Another missing ingredient is a co-founder. Startups are simply too hard and require too much parallel processing for one person to do it all. So helping solo founders realize they need a co-founder, define what they are looking for, and start the search is another typical way to fill in what’s missing.
2. Inspire your mentee to a new level
Inspire is a powerful word and a key word in the world of startups. As a founder and leader you absolutely must inspire trust, confidence, and belief in not only your team but your investors, partners, and of course, you customers. Helping to inspire founders to think bigger, while at the same time be more focused is a true challenge for a mentor. And again, this is something I don’t see on typical lists of what a mentor does. I like Tim’s quote: As a mentor, sometimes all you need to do is become a magnifying glass for everything that is right in another person.
3. Challenge them
I find I often have to challenge my mentees. In a recent session the mentor team had to challenge the bedrock assumption of the founders as to who their target customer was. Obviously it wasn’t easy or fun to tell the founding team that they were trying to hit multiple target markets, which was a real mistake, and that focusing on their one and only target market would then align the rest of their business for them. Often as a mentor you have to tell mentees what they don’t necessarily want to hear. Just the other day I had to tell a founder that their method of sales projections was flat out wrong and would cause virtually every investor to kick them out of their office! (They used the typical beginner’s idea that “If we just get 10% of this $500 million dollar market we’ll do $50 million in revenue in year 2”! Hah!)
4. Use leverage
I’m not fond of Tim Denning’s example of leverage, but you can read his article and decide for yourself. But leverage is a key concept I use with my mentees. I picked this up from Bill Warner, founder of Avid, who I consider to be a mentor even if he might not. The technical definition of leverage is gaining mechanical advantage. However, I use the term to mean gain business advantage. Founders need to do more with less resources. In fact that is the art of entrepreneurship – stretching the dollar as the VCs at Greylock used to tell me. One great way to gain leverage is to work with professors at business schools to use their students to do market research for you. Using business school students provides you business advantage by amplifying your resources. Real market research is time consuming and often requires access to expensive databases, which business students have. And providing MBA students the opportunity to work with a startup is a great opportunity for them. So this is a win-win relationship which I’ve used many times over the years.
5. Intro them to others
One of the first things I do when I have a good understanding of what a founder is trying to achieve is to go through my mental Rolodex to think of someone I know who could help them. Often no one comes to mind at first, so I’ll then search through my contacts, of which there are thousands, to see if there is someone who can help them. If so, I’ll send an email introducing the founder to my contact and vice versa. Intros are one of the most valuable things a mentor can do for a founder. And often the intro benefits the person I’ve introduced them as well. Then we get a real win-win, hitting bullseye of mentorship!
6. Share your stories
I’ve accumulated a lot of stories in four decades of entrepreneurship and I find that telling a story is much more helpful than trying to give a mentee direct advice, as they can glean the moral of the story. It’s mentorship by example. Telling stories is also modeling behavior for founders. Because founders need to tell stories themselves, to their potential investors, new hires, partners, and every stakeholder in their enterprise. A common mistake I find very commonly in MBAs or MBA students is that they operate at a very high level of abstraction. I strongly encourage them to use real examples, stories, rather than abstract, generic business language to present their company. Just yesterday we had a founder who had great stories to tell us about his venture in real estate, but none of them were in his presentation! We strongly encouraged him to replace the business jargon with examples and stories from his own experience. People are hardwired to respond to stories; they don’t respond nearly as well to business buzzwords.
Of course, the bottom line is: do you really want to be a world class mentor? The pay is low, actually zero! And we never get a raise or a bonus! And it takes a lot of time, energy and effort. But if that’s your goal, these six skills will certainly help you to get there. When I started mentoring, about a decade ago, there was little mentoring going on outside of the MIT Venture Mentoring Service, and very little written on the subject. Over the past year I’ve seen an explosion in mentoring that mirrors the explosion in the number of startups – VMS had 44 applications last month alone! But like being a great founder, being a great mentor means learning constantly about what it takes to be the best. You’ll find the great founders, like Bill Gates, are avid readers who love to share what they are reading. Bill has been doing this for years. So should you.
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