Do you need subject matter expertise to be a successful mentor?


Well I really have very little subject matter expertise that is relevant to the startups I mentor at MIT.  And I’m not an engineer or scientist, marketing or sales whizz, or finance guru. Yet i’ve been a pretty successful mentor not only for mentors at The MIT Mentoring Service and The MIT Sandbox fund and just starting out with post-doctoral fellows.

How can that be possible? The reason is that 90% of the founders or teams I mentor are very early stage and I’ve had a wealth of experience dealing with early stage business issues, from admin (finding office space, setting up an accounting system), to IP (filing for patents and trademarks), to recruiting and developing talent, to raising capital, to working with Boards of Directors and advisors – virtually every startup situation. And my experience includes problem solving as well, such as team with founder’s agreement problems to dtysfunctioning teams, to companies running out of money.

There are some instances where I’ve felt a company has reached a stage where they really need domain-specific expertise, which usually translates to market expertise. For example, a company may have a product and wants to sell it to the government. Well, I’ve had very little experience with the governmental market. I just know enough to know I don’t know enough. The beauty of the MIT Venture Mentoring Service is that with 180 mentors there are mentors who have subject matter expertise who can be called on the join the mentor team. I’ve sought to replace myself a couple of times.

VMS gives mentors a choice of which ventures they are interesting in mentoring. We may not get our choices but we never get assigned to any founder. The MIT Sandbox fund, on the other hand, assigned me mentees with no input from me. But they were all early stage and in areas where I knew enough to be helpful, like mobile apps. Last summer, when I got assigned to three founder teams in bioengineering I was fortunate to be paired up with a mentor who had deep bioengineering experience. In fact he was even in the process of setting up a bioengineering lab.  As a team we worked well together, where I took the lead on business issues and he took the lead on technical issues.

So can you be a mentor without subject or domain expertise? Yes, providing you have business/startup expertise and a general understanding of a few technical areas and a deep expertise in a particular market, in my case it happens to be higher education.

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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