Virtual mentoring is key to scaling


Mentoring is almost always thought of as a process that’s conducted face-face-face – f2f. In fact The MIT Venture Mentoring Service has a strict policy against virtual mentoring, with the occasional exception made for a founder who is traveling in Japan or otherwise indisposed. And then participation is always a via conference call, never a video conference. As a result the founders and mentors in the room tend to totally forget about the founder on the conference line. Likewise it’s very rare to get much contribution from the founder at the other end of the phone line.

Despite that I’ve long been interested in virtual mentoring, with the caveat that it means using WebX, Zoom or some other video conferencing platform so the remote founder can not just hear but also see who they are interacting with. And the mentors can see the founder(s) who only has a virtual presence.

I’ve done several virtual mentoring sessions through The MIT Sandbox Fund, which though focused on f2f mentoring is more flexible about virtual mentoring. I’m a big fan of Y-Combinator, so I tend to read any article featuring YC. Thus the article Y Combinator will accept 10,000 startups to prove there’s nothing magical about Silicon Valley by Michael J. Coren on Quartz captured my attention. As did the mildly snarky sub-title, Who needs the Valley [?].

Up to now YC has only turned out about 300 companies a year through its bi-annual program in Mountain View, California. Most of what it does remains analog and manual: mentoring in classrooms, weekly dinners, and a program requiring everyone to live in California for months at a time.

But YC is now attempting to teach thousands of would-be entrepreneurs the ropes. The first cohort was made up of 3,000 companies from around the world. Obviously their traditional f2 model could never scale by a factor of ten. Thus ….participants are given a chance to “replicate much of the YC experience” through a virtual program with mentors, collaboration with peers and video lectures. This I believe is the largest virtual mentoring program ever! Unlike MIT VMS, which offers mentoring sessions in an on-demand model, Startup School holds group mentoring sessions using Google Hangouts. Note “group sessions”, probably a necessity to mentor 3,000 ventures, and a model I’ve been participated in with both MIT Sandbox and MIT’s Post-Doctoral Fellows Association. In both cases I’ve found the sessions far more difficult to manage than the typical team mentoring sessions of both VMS and Sandbox. While the number of participants grows linearly, the number of founder-mentor combinations grows exponentially. In group I felt that a lot more structure was needed to manage this plethora of founder-mentor connections.

YC provides online advice to startups in a ratio of mentors to ventures of 30:1 and YC even plans to increase this ratio, which will further stimulate the combinatorial explosion of mentor to venture relationships.

YC is pioneering not only virtual mentoring but group mentoring, both on a massive scale. I will be very interested to see how well these programs work and how YC may fine tune their mentoring of ventures in future cohorts.

In the meantime I’ve got a Google alert for “virtual mentoring” which I hope will snare news of interest to me and anyone interested in mentoring that goes far beyond the traditional singleton, one-to-one mentoring. VMS pioneered the practice of team mentoring. And it has been highly successful since its founding in 2000. My guess is that no matter how successful virtual mentoring sessions run by YC prove to be, f2f, mentor to founder mentoring will remain the standard model of mentoring – whether that be traditional career mentoring or the mentoring of entrepreneurs, my special interest. But if I were to start my own mentoring service I would bake in virtual mentoring from the get go, as I see it as the only way to scale and scaling is a necessity if you want to get beyond a boutique service. Perhaps in the not too distant future mentoring will take place in virtual reality. And when it does, sign me up!


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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