While Scott Kitun, CEO of Technori, has some good statistics about the value of mentors to startup ventures, his personal experience seems to not have been positive. Thus his article on Entrepreneur.com Does Something Feel ‘Off’ About Your Mentor-Mentee Relationship? subtitled Don’t ignore these 3 red flags that indicate your relationship is toxic.
Let’s start with the positive about mentorship:
Today, in business, the value of mentorship is largely a given. It’s why, according to the Wall Street Journal, nearly 70 percent of Fortune 500 companies offer corporate mentorship programs. And that’s of course a good thing because, in theory, mentors help founders stay focused on a road map; they provide early introductions, experience-based advice and perhaps even a little capital.
… a UPS study found that 70 percent of mentored startups examined stayed open for five years or more, while non-mentored companies survived at only half that rate.
But here’s Mr. Kitun’s warning flags about mentors:
1. A lack of credentials
Mentors needs both expertise and experience. According to a study published in the Academic Medicine journal, a lack of experience is a leading factor in the failure of a mentoring relationship. Mr. Kitun advises founders to question potential mentors about their backgrounds and ascertain that their experience is relevant to your venture.
2. An appearance of no strings (or cash) attached
Mr. Kitun made the classic founder mistake of spending his valuable time at networking events, as he says “When I was a new entrepreneur, I attended countless happy hours and networking events for months on end. I found myself swimming in a sea of people who freely offered up their help and expertise in exchange for nothing — initially. ” But who else attends these networking events? Service providers: lawyers, accountants, venture capitalists, angels, consultants. Many will offer their services for free. But there are some bad actors out there who will try to leverage free into paid – in his case they asked for a percentage of his revenue. One of the big advantages of the MIT Venture Mentoring Service and the 80 sister programs it has sprouted is that mentors can have no agenda, whether than be compensation or anything else that could color their mentorship. Violating these guidelines is cause for expulsion from the mentor program. Find your mentor through your own network, not by fishing at innumerable networking events.
3. Demands for huge changes
Founders need to keep in mind that they and they alone are in the driver’s seat. Mentors are backseat drivers, giving advice not controlling the venture. I’ve written elsewhere about my distaste for the fad of “pivoting” – the key success factor in startups in my experience has been persistence. Mr. Kitun warns of mentors pressuring founders to make big changes in their venture. He claims “Many companies have fallen off the map because they chased bad advice or an illogical agenda down a rabbit hole, purely because it was something the mentor wanted.” I’ve never seen this myself, nor heard of it, but these are his red flags, not mine.
The moral of this story is that due diligence is required of any relationship a founder enters, including mentors. Talk to your prospective mentor’s mentees. Was he or she helpful? Did they have a personal agenda? Take a test drive with a prospective mentor and see if their style is a fit with your company. Mentors and advisors can play important roles in new ventures and thus should be chosen wisely and with care. Mr. Kitun’s experience and red flags should be headed by founders, but don’t let his experience cast a pall on mentorship, which in my ten years of experience is virtually always a benefit to founders.