Mentorship is considered vital in the startup ecosystem for building a successful startup. Of course, having a great product/service to tackle a painful problem is important, and so is good market traction, equally important is a great mentor to sustain and grow these fundamentals.
What is a mentor?
Before delving deeper into why exactly mentorship is so important for startups, let’s start off by explaining what a mentor is.
The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines a mentor as a ”trusted counsellor or guide”. Other sources expand on this definition by adding that a mentor is a person who provides support for your career in general or more specific work projects. Furthermore, some sources state that a mentor gives general life advice out of goodwill. A startup mentor combines the several attributes mentioned above and specifically applies these to startup founders.
A startup mentor is a person who possesses the experiences and knowledge you seek to acquire. Mentors have already been through many of the failures and successes most entrepreneurs experience, both through their professional life and personal life, and they are able to share the experiences and knowledge they have gained with entrepreneurs who undoubtedly need this information.
More importantly, mentors have a genuine interest in you succeeding, they have already found personal success and fulfilment, they feel it is time to pass this on. This is what makes the relationship authentic. This is also the reason why mentorships should not be forced, finding the right mentor is critical.
Reasons to find a mentor
1. Growing your startup is difficult
Most first-time entrepreneurs did no truly realize how hard the journey of entrepreneurship is before starting their own business. Regardless of how much hours you spent researching about startups and entrepreneurship in general, unless you experience the journey of entrepreneurship yourself, you won’t know nearly as much as someone who has had that first-hand experience.
Having a mentor does not necessarily result in a lighter workload, but it can be a tremendous help when it comes to making hard decisions. As a good mentor will provide unbiased advice, the founder gets to look at matters from different perspectives, lessening the risk of jumping into something which the founder is not prepared for.
Mentors also have valuable experiences regarding failures. Failures are bound to be experienced by any startup, knowing what type of failures to expect and how to avoid these is invaluable for any founder. Founders won’t be able to avoid any and all failures, but any failure avoided saves a lot of headache and work.
2. Startups have limited amounts of capital
Genuine and authentic mentors do not provide mentorship to startups to maximize their own capital gains. When it comes to entrepreneurship, one of the major challenges during the earliest stages of a company is the finances. Starting a company and building it from the ground up is an expensive endeavour. Rather than taking a course or attending a conference, webinar or event, which often will cost you money and a lot of time, a mentor makes much more sense.
Apart from saving money, mentorship will offer you a much more personalized experience, avoiding the common occurrence of heading to an event or conference with questions in mind which end up not being answered.
Genuine mentors provide mentorship primarily for the sake of bettering the startup-ecosystem. They understand better than anyone, a founder’s position and what a founder goes through.
Good mentors are in the business of helping startups because they believe in bettering the entrepreneurial ecosystem. They understand where you are and want to give back by guiding you through the toughest startup stages.
3. Mentorship can grant you access to a new network
Most startup mentors are well-connected individuals. They have been a part of their industry, field or community and amassed a vast network of people who can be of great value to any entrepreneur. Furthermore, mentors are usually connected to other entrepreneurs within the startup-ecosystem. These entrepreneurs could potentially offer partnerships or other forms of collaborative interactions.
A good mentor will not try to answer any question you might pose that does not align with their personal experience. Rather, the mentors will find individuals within their broad network that are able to provide the knowledge you seek and connect you with them. This way you not only grow your own personal network, but you also get leads for early adopters or service providers to get in touch with during later stages of startup-growth.
4. Honest and realistic perspectives
As stated before, building a company from the ground up is very challenging. It takes a lot of time, money, effort and commitment for something that has a high rate of failure.
Mentorship can be of great value in ensuring your vision and actions are realistic and responsible. For instance, when your startup is not ready for the next step, your idea is not developed well enough, your solution does not really solve any real problem or the product-market fit does not line up properly. The mentor will be the first to tell you that you are not ready yet and should address these issues.
As mentors look at your company from an outsider’s perspective, they will be able to notice issues that are hard for you to notice from within the company.
Profile of a fitting mentor
Knowledge of your industry
Mentorship based on operating experience in the same or similar industry would be a major help in gaining knowledge of the general industry and market you are active in. It is fine if the mentor is not very knowledgeable of your industry, as long as he/she can introduce you to individuals within their network who do possess the relevant industry knowledge.
Both for knowledge and authenticity of shared knowledge, it is important that your mentor is either someone with entrepreneurial experience and/or someone who has experience in managing and leading a company at the highest level. These are the most reliable mentors as they are likely to have experienced the validation of ideas, raising money and helping your startup go through difficult times.
A far-reaching Network
Having a mentor with solid connections is invaluable in the startup ecosystem. The mentor is the person who can open many doors for a startup. These doors could lead to network effects that provide a startup with opportunities such as new potential customers, early customer trials, partnerships, interested investors and more.
To give an example, investors will generally feel more comfortable investing in a startup that was referred to them by someone within their network. The same investor who might have refrained from investing in your startup before you had a mentor, would be willing to invest now that someone in the investor’s network has recommended your startup as a good investment opportunity. The same principle applies to referrals for corporate partnerships and general B2B engagements.
An often overseen yet basic aspect of a good mentor fit is the chemistry between the founder and the mentor. As the two will be working together closely, good chemistry can have a major impact on the outcomes of the mentorship. The mentor should be able to empathize with the founder.
Dejection and depression are prevalent states of emotion faced by young startup founders, mentors can only be of help with these kinds of issues if the bond between the founder and mentor is strong, as these are deeply personal topics. However, the mentor should not be strongly opinionated as to ensure there is a space for open discussion with various perspectives.
Imaginative and Problem Solving
Two fundamental elements for a startup are the conception of innovative solutions and focus on matters beyond the daily tasks and operations. A great mentor should help your startup by tackling both of these fundamentals. The solutions mentors should help startups find, can range from solving issues regarding technology, funding, market access, organizational culture and many more. The mentor should help founders build creative and efficient solutions to handle such issues based on his/her experience and knowledge.
Mentors should also ensure that the founder keeps track of long-term goals and ideas, and emphasize on the larger picture. This could be done by keeping up to date on market dynamics and technology trends, which then can be used to build alternative revenue streams, to scale, and to solidify the startups’ position within the market.
In general, you should be thorough and well informed to be able to choose the right mentor. A great mentor may not necessarily have all the characteristics and elements described above, which is fine as long as he/she can introduce you to people who do possess the missing elements. Finding such a mentor will definitely be of great benefit to you and your startup, both professionally and on a more personal level.