Why, when, how to, and the dangers (yes the dangers!) of getting a mentor for your startup [part 1]

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Mentoring has been a crucial part of my life, both as a mentee and as a mentor. It has given an incredible leg up in anything I've done, at home or at work, and I can only wish you the same experience.

In fact I can do more than wishing you something, I can share how I made it work for myself and what I've figured out along the way.

As a bonus, learning how to find and get a mentor will help you to get better at doing customer development.

What you won't find in this guide

In two words: tactics and templates.

Mentoring is all about building a relationship so if you hope to do that by sending out a bunch of emails this is not the guide for you, sorry.

Getting advice Vs getting mentored

There's nothing wrong with asking for advice (and in fact if you'd like to discuss your startup feel free to book a free call with me), but you shouldn't confuse that with mentoring.

What I define as mentoring is a much deeper and long term relationship that aims at supporting you throughout your journey and has a substantial commitment from both sides. A one-off 30 minutes phone call can do wonders to get you closer to your goal, but that's not the same thing in my opinion.

This is key if you consider one simple thing: context.

I do a lot of calls with entrepreneurs and it's always a challenge to be helpful in <30 mins unless it's a case out of a rulebook. Why? Because I don't have enough context.

Put yourself in my shoes, say we're on the phone right now and I ask you for help to market Spikelab.

What would you tell me?

I suspect you'd start asking questions, first of all what's the blog about, who's my audience, etc. By the time we're done with that more than half of the time together is likely gone. Now you're left with 10 mins or less to come up with some valuable advice and explain it to me in such a way that I can execute on it immediately.

It can be done, but it's really hard.

Now instead picture that you and I meet on a regular basis and we've talked before. You know everything about my business and how it's evolved and you know me personally, how I think, what I'm trying to achieve etc. How more likely do you think you would be to help me out?

What is true tho is that a mentoring relationship often (if not always), starts with seeking advice.

Bad mentors are no joke

Because it's a relationship do not underestimate the power that it has to affect you negatively.

When I was starting out I looked up at pretty much anybody that had more experience than me and sought them out as mentors. I didn't pay enough attention to their alignment with my vision and values or questioned what I was told. As a result I got a lot of unhelpful advice and in hindsight that probably costed me more than not having a mentor at all.

There's plenty people that approach mentoring as an ego-trip, sort of like a saint man coming down from the mountain to tell you what you should and shouldn't do.

Bad mentors, like bad car salesmen, will advertise magic formulas to solve all your problems.

STAY AWAY FROM THOSE PEOPLE

If you ever encounter anybody telling you what to do without first asking questions just back away.

Or at least, if you still want to listen, do so with a critical mind and make a mental note that their feedback should be treated with extra care.

Due to time constraints it can happen however that mentors will fire off quick replies hoping to help without doing a lot of questioning. If you're ready for mentoring you should be able to tell this apart from the above (more on being ready below).

At the same time it's true that a good mentor won't overcommit and will make sure to have enough time for all his mentee. If you're finding yourself always cut off that's a sign you might need to look for somebody else.

Are you ready to be mentored?

There's two things you need to be aware of when approaching mentors:

  1. you need to earn your chance to be mentored
  2. a mentor is no silver bullet

One of the biggest time sinks for mentors are people that won't do their homework and ask dumb questions that can be answered with a google search.

This is the fastest way to get on a mentor's black list. My rule of thumb is that it takes about 3 months if you're starting something new to get enough of a clue to ask good questions.

Vice versa proving you have done your homework sends a strong signal to the mentor that you will be a good person to work with.

People however often feel lost when they move their first steps in a new direction and a mentor can be helpful to put them on the right path. That's a good time to seek advice, start there.

What a good mentor looks like

A good mentor should avoid spun-feeding answers and rather ask great questions that provoke the mentee to find the answer.

This is important for two reasons:

  1. unless the mentor is in the same or immediately close line of business that you are in, their experience may not directly translate, but the problem-solving process will
  2. nothing sticks like getting to the answers ourselves

A good mentor will also care first and foremost about you. This means he will listen and avoid talking about absolute rights and wrongs, but always bring it back to your situation and how it can be useful to you.

Humbleness is also a trait to look for as it is an approach to share knowledge rather than to teach. This I feel is especially true in Lean Startup world where the core principle is to take everything as hypothesis to test.

What mentors are good for

Mentors divide in two categories:

  • strategists
  • specialists

Strategists focus on the big picture and have a broad set of competencies, which you can leverage to develop a solid roadmap. They have a good working knowledge about most areas of the map, but ultimately you will need to find a specialist to dig deeper in each area.

Strategists are great to:

  • tell you if you are going in the right direction or at least what signposts you should look for
  • warn you about those unknown unknowns that they ran into so that you won't
  • put you in touch with someone that can help you with a specific problem if they don't know how (good mentors tend to be well connected)

Specialists are instead domain experts, with in depth knowledge about a smaller set of topics. These are the people you need if your startup is highly vertical, either in terms of technology or market.

Specialists are good to:

  • give you specific advice on a specific problem (how would you optimize a funnel that looks like xyz with abc %s and these steps?)
  • help you navigate a specific market (say you're in the Gov sector, which is a world of its own).

As you can see depending on your stage is very important to pick the right kind of mentor and be aware of the limitations as you grow.

The most common configuration is to seek a strategist early on and then add on specialists as you expand. Depending on the situation is also possible that your strategist mentor will have domain specific competence you can leverage.

Conclusions and what's in part 2

That's it for part 1, hopefully you have a solid idea of what to look for in a mentor and how to avoid bad apples.

In the next part of the series we will look at:

  • Finding the right mentor
  • Reaching out to a mentor
  • Outreach guidelines (there are no templates!)

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