I know that is a strong statement; quit reading if you disagree, it’s about to get worse.
This is how someone might become a mentor. They watch a TED talk, let’s say Simon Sinek, and learn the golden circle, why, how, what. Maybe they also read a blog post, let’s say, “How to Implement OKRs in an Early-stage Company” from Brian Balfour. Then, all pumped up, they get out and teach young startups what they ‘think’ they have learned.
Worse yet, they don’t bother investing a lifetime in learning what others have conceptualized and go on with their certainties and mentor startups, solely based upon their convictions.
Perhaps worst of all the mentor is a Corporation…masquerading as an innovator wanting to nurture start-ups. Don’t you think that with the resources a Corporation has at its disposal, they would build innovative projects inside the corporation on their own? What do they have to teach? The reality is that most Corporations have no clue, save for a few exceptions like the pure players, Google, Amazon, or Salesforce to name a few.
Reality Check — There are no ‘mentor’ rules of engagement or code of conduct. Anyone can self-label and become a mentor and there is no litmus test or ‘Start-up’ Angel network to ensure how legitimate a mentor is. Even more troubling, for a lousy mentor, there are no consequences — despite leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.
The reality is that many mentors are charlatans, in it for themselves, and operating a fraud.
The consequences for the startup can be significant, even fatal. It’s a common tale, a bad mentor convinces a start-up that an ‘anon’ investor will be attracted and fund them if only the startup works diligently on so-and-so objectives, which, it turns out, are as crappy as hell and the start-up invests their precious remaining resources and time doing the wrong thing. Outcome = Burn out, cash dry-up and retire another once-promising logo to the ‘Start-Up Fail — Hall of Fame’
So is there a better solution? Maybe…
Most people will respond by saying, “find a mentor who has done it”.
It’s the beginning of a good response but not quite complete. Indeed, one could choose to learn kite surfing with a long time kite surfer, or, alternatively, select someone who never attempted to set sail while standing on a surfboard but having seen a bunch of YouTube videos. If you try to learn from the second type, at best, you’ll end up drinking too much water, worst you end up in a hospital or dead.
Having experience in a start-up is much better of course, as long as the mentor is conscientious and stays abreast of best practices that are constantly evolving because what was true then, might no longer be. Recognizing that the entire ecosystem is in perpetual flux — a living, breathing, evolving entity — will help the mentor stay effective.
However, great experience does not equal great mentors. Experienced entrepreneurs can be well-minded but offer terrible advice.
So what is the solution?
The second response is, “find an expert.”
At least experts have precise and informed answers on particular topics. However, on the other hand, experts can be extremely theoretical, and a startup is a very real experiment with immediate consequences. Experts are disconnected from the entrepreneurial world, prudent and cautious. Conversely, entrepreneurs are nuts!
Is there any hope?
Don’t get me wrong; the right mentors are doing wonders helping entrepreneurs throughout the ecosystem. I believe, when delivered correctly, that mentoring can have the single greatest impact on a startup. Being able to define and chart the right trajectory, avoid the booby-traps, and keep the team’s sights on the big picture goes a very long way.
However, the vetting of a good versus lousy mentor remains in the hands of the entrepreneur. Given that most entrepreneurs won’t be able to formalize what they do not know yet, and have no experience in how to screen good mentors, makes for a very complicated decision.
So what defines a good mentor?
First, be realistic, forget finding a mentor who has a wide spectrum of knowledge to help you on every single topic. No-one can be an expert at growth, branding, sales, product management, hiring, and so on at the same time, Superman maybe!
- Good mentors know what they don’t know, and WILL TELL YOU.
- Good mentors never tell you how to do things. They challenge your convictions to make you think and avoid drawing a conclusion for you.
- They are humble, listening many multiples more than speaking, but when they do speak, it’s meaningful, pointed, and important — for the start-up, not themselves.
- Good mentors are part of a network of other individuals who can become go-to people for specific expert topics.
- Good mentors are curious, inspiring, infinite learners. They look for inspiration from the ecosystem; they read a lot of posts, they watch a lot of talks, they listen to podcasts, think a lot, and they change/refine their convictions regularly.
- Good mentors invest time to understand a start-up’s unique situation. I’m sure you have had conversations with mentors who in just 2 minutes tell you ”that’s not the way to do it”. That’s your first clue to run away fast!
- Good mentors do not sugar coat what they have to say, time is precious on both sides and ruthless objectivity and straight talk are the currency of a good mentor. (*That’s why I said ‘mentoring sucks’ and not ‘mentoring needs a little makeover’)
- Good mentors have track records, that are still growing, as entrepreneurs, experts, investors; they live and breathe the startup ecosystem; they have worked with numerous startups. Being inside the startup ecosystem keeps the mentor’s honest and informed.
- Good mentors are good teachers.
- Good mentors are good people.
My guess is that my list might help you root out and eliminate the bad ones, but it can’t help you find the good ones. At least I hope you see this as a step in the right direction.