At a recent talk I gave on the “qualities of a successful startup CEO”, young entrepreneurs seeking help to improve their businesses peppered me with questions and requests. Unfortunately, some of these businesses had critical flaws related to market, leadership, location, culture, or the very nature of the product or service. For many of them, my input was simple but harsh: reformat, reboot, and restart.
These entrepreneurs are hard workers, driven and often adequately funded. One thing they were all missing was an experienced person, a professional in their field to give them valuable advice at every step of the process. They were missing a mentor.
You need a mentor
A startup is a risky proposition. Even when you do EVERYTHING right, you are still more likely to fail than succeed. It is therefore important to have someone with experience help you identify and avoid the mistakes that will doom your product or business. A mentor can help you calibrate your ideas, hire wisely for your team, select adequate tools for product development, introduce you to the right people, give you advice on dos and don’ts. Preferably, you need to get a mentor prior to hiring your first team member. However, the right time is always now, if you don’t already have one.
Beware of self-proclaimed professional mentors! I call them “startup mentors” not because they have startups, but because they are startups. You are trying to start a business; they are trying to start one as well. You have a product; you are their product. Also steer away from entrepreneurs with no records of enterprises. Do your homework. Look for someone with measurable success in building something similar or with proven skills you need. A great mentor could also be someone with a few years of experience but fresh knowledge of the process to share.
Once you’ve identified a potential match, someone able to help you, you must earn his or her respect. This doesn’t mean kissing ass, but it does mean expressing that you value their input and admire their experience and skills. Develop a relationship, impress them and let them see your potential. You don’t have to ask for a formal relationship, it will be most likely develop organically. Great mentors can spot people with real potential. She or he will get a kick out of helping you make it big.
Ask the right questions
Both mentors and mentees must ask the right questions. Don’t expect mentors to guess what you need. Don’t just ask for help. Be specific. Be open. If you don’t trust your mentor enough to provide him or her with details on your idea or product, you should not bother. For example, ask about what qualities they looked for in their first employees, how they dealt with their co-founders, insights on market and culture etc. You should also expect your mentors to ask difficult questions. Recently, a mentee told me during a meeting that his company intended to add 1000 new users by Christmas. He basically had 15 days to reach that milestone. So I asked him how many users the company added last year. “About 100 users” he said. After a few more questions, it became evident to both of us that his goal was simply unrealistic. The exchange became a teachable moment on setting realistic goals to succeed.
Make it worthwhile
What’s in it for the mentor? It depends. Some people simply want to help young entrepreneurs get it right. Others approach this as a business proposition. Make sure things are clear. If the relationship involves equity or the payment of fees, put it in writing. If your mentor is just trying to help, work hard, implement action plans to the best of your ability, provide frequent and detailed updates. Occasional small gifts are appropriate.