The curse of the bad mentor

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This quote, often erroneously assigned to George Washington, applies to every person, but even more so to people whose advice you are considering to take. For an entrepreneur that often means a mentor.

Now I've got nothing against mentoring, I do a lot of it and I got where I got because of the skilled advice others have given me over the years. But, and it's a big but, I never took any of that advice for granted, and rather treated it as a pointer rather than an absolute truth.

What I'm finding however is that a lot of entrepreneurs these days come to me asking for solutions. What's worse, they seem to often take what I say as the gospel no matter how many times I tell them not to, and tell them instead to go out and see for themselves. That to me goes against everything an entrepreneur is supposed to be.

Look, I get it, I've been there, you're just starting out and you feel lost, vulnerable, and so it's no surprise that you reach out to those who have done it before for guidance. But guidance is no more than a pointer, and you're not hopeless if you can't secure a mentor. In fact that may very well be a blessing in disguise.

The first mentor I had in my life was called Wolffire. I just discovered computers and IRC (this was back in the early 90s). I joined a channel to get help on some linux problem and after asking my very first question I got back one single terse acronym: RTFM.

I had to google what it meant and you can imagine my surprise when I found out that it expanded to Read The F* Manual. Meh. I felt almost betrayed, I thought it was supposed to be an open accepting community and all… but I had no choice and so I went to read the manual. Lo and behold 2 hours later I had my answer and in the process I had understood so much about the system that I would have never grasped if I had just got an answer. So I went back to the IRC room and thanked Wolffire.

I don't quite take that stance with the people I mentor, I understand the difficulties and being direct doesn't mean to be rude, but I know that what Wolffire did back then, and over the following months of dry replies, went far beyond helping me with linux. He taught me self-reliance, he taught me to seek for understanding and not take anybody's answer for granted, he taught me a life lesson.

And eventually he passed onto me his role in helping newcomers, but what I faced was something quite different. Linux had become popular and it was no longer the privilege of some geeks, which in many ways was a very good thing. However the tone of the conversations had completely changed. More than once I faced angry newbies that demanded answers and straight to the point, they had no time to figure things out, let alone do that on their own.

I'm seeing much of the same with younger entrepreneurs. They regard mentors as some sort of silver bullet, an immediate solution to all their problems and a requirement for success. But that's not mentoring, the closest thing to that is a consultant and even them can't have the answers all the times. This gets compounded by the survivor bias: you think - he's been successful therefore what he did must be the right way of doing it. Or you may find a mentor that had bad experiences with something and warns you to never do that.

In both cases - meh.

Startups are a work of love and uncertainty, that comes with trying to do something bold and innovative - the market is constantly shifting, new players come and go, and while some patterns do hold and are worth considering, no advice should ever be taken to the letter.

So if you care about your long term success and personal growth do yourself a favor and:

  1. avoid anybody, successful or not, telling you that XYZ is an absolute truth that you should follow or not.
  2. don't get caught up with mentoring, it won't be your life and death. Yes it's useful and you should build a network of people to support you along the way, but focus on opportunities to confront yourself with other smart folks, not just the advice of the experts
  3. see it for yourself and trust yourself, more often than not the people I speak to already have the answers, they are just afraid of saying them aloud.

Enjoy the adventure and reach out if you'd like to chat, it's often helpful to talk just to force oneself to express one's ideas to someone else.



Spike is awesome! He got to the heart of our challenge quickly and provided our team with wonderful insight that helped put us on a clear, straight path to getting our product to market - in just one phone call! Even better, Spike is a generous man on an authentic mission to help people be successful in life and business.

― Michelle May, Shenami

Spike was just great. He gave me the helicopter view of the path we are on, what we could choose to do now, and what lies ahead. He was generous with suggesting practical steps for right now, and also things to work towards. I hope to talk with him again.

― Carrie N Ballard, Utrecht Area, Netherlands

As soon as Spike started to speak - in a thoughtful, careful and considered way, I knew I was going to really benefit from listening to him. Spike had some good answers to my questions around pricing and ways to look at it not only in terms of finding a sweet spot, but also using it as a way to assert our values. And great follow up advice by email - thanks!

― Bridget Harris, YouCanBook.Me

I approached Spike unsure of what my next steps should be. He helped us to figure out just that and identify the key actions to build an experience that will wow our customers. Spike also pointed out very interesting strategies for testing monetization and getting that engine of growth going. Very useful. Thanks!

― Anders Hasselstrøm, StartupTravels, Denmark

Spike is incredibly insightful. He has a way of asking the right questions that gets you to see problems from a new perspective and with greater clarity. Every conversation with Spike, I walk away with an 'Aha!' moment that helps me move forward.

― Steven Kim, San Francisco

I am incredibly inspired by Spike's advice + expertise in regards to applying lean start-up to my business. Spike is very knowledgeable, sharp and supportive. He's just the mentor we need and I am excited to be part of his mentoring program!

― Nicole Kasal, Cleanse Culture, Chicago

Spike has a sharp mind and a well articulated analytic sense that cuts to the core of any question. The help he provided on Startup Advice allowed me to clarify my goals and refine who I think my audience is. I highly recommend talking to Spike!

― Paul V. Weinstein, Deal maker and fundraiser, SF

Spike asked hard questions and within the first few minutes of our conversation homed in on the core of most of my confusion. I now have an actual plan of attack that will get me the information I need to make the right decisions to move forward.

― Katrina Owen, exercism.io

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