What are the two things you wish you had more of as an entrepreneur?
Assuming that we’re living in reality and must rule out “time” as a valid response, and that we aren’t asking for things that must be earned (e.g. customers), many entrepreneurs – early stage, especially – will have the same two things on their lists.
Money and mentors.
ExitEvent actually ran an article last July listing these as the top two things early stage entrepreneurs need.
Some of you should still be with me because while the need for funding typically comes and goes, the need for mentors is constant. I have mentors now and plan to have them indefinitely. The value of mentors is not conditional on the type of company I am leading, my success, age, or the length of my resume. As Ryan Allis, co-founder of iContact, once told me, developing a mentor-mentee relationship is one of the most important things any entrepreneur can do.
But what do I mean by mentor? I’m not one to get picky about diction, but I hear this word applied to a host of advisory network relationships, which can cause problems. Thinking you have a mentor when you don’t can prevent you from getting an actual mentor. Or it can lead to misaligned expectations between you and your non-mentor.
Mentors are a single, specific, very valuable group in a greater advisory network. In my advisory network, there are two additional groups, which, for this article, I have given entirely uncreative but useable names: Social Advisors and Friends. Other groups can be in the advisory network, too, such as Coaches (consultants, financial advisors, or attorneys), but here, I focus on relationships that require no cash or contracts, and that every entrepreneur can and should have.
Understanding the different types of roles is the first step in getting these roles filled, and then getting the most out of them.
These are the most coveted members of the advisory network and they’re the most difficult to find. Qualified Mentors have successful and relevant experience, they’re committed and engaged, and— this is a distinguishing characteristic— they make an intentional effort to develop the mentee.
Mentoring is a skill itself and it doesn’t simply materialize with success or industry experience. It can be easier to simply dole out specific recommendations than act as a Mentor. So finding someone who not only has experience relevant to you, but who has played the Mentor role before is a plus.
Mentors meet with you regularly and get to know you and your company well. They provide assistance when you ask for it, but your agenda does not define the scope of their involvement. If you want their help fundraising, but they think your team is a mess, they’re going to talk to you about your team.
They ask tough questions, can provide valuable connections, and should hold you accountable. In early or pivot stages they’re critical as they help more than anyone else in the advisory network at the higher levels of prioritization and strategy. Members of an Advisory Board can act as Mentors, but not all startups use their Advisory Boards this way.
You can acquire Mentors through formal programs, but do the research before committing to a mentoring program. Find out how the mentors are selected and paired with mentees. Some programs pair you with folks who aren’t qualified, aren’t available, or who don’t understand what a Mentor is. An organically developed mentor-mentee relationship is the most likely to be successful (otherwise it wouldn’t develop) but good programs can be helpful in finding the right person(s). I can recommend CED’s Venture Mentoring Service from personal experience.
Finally, if you don’t use them, you likely lose them. Other people want them as Mentors and they can’t fill this role for very many at a time.
Two primary characteristics qualify Social Advisors: experience and engagement with the local startup community. This means they can provide credible advice and are at least somewhat available to provide it.
They’re likely working entrepreneurs who have one or more successes under their belts. They can be found at the ExitEvent Social—this is the type of relationship I wrote about in my February WRAL Tech Wire article—at a VC firm that offers office hours, or at other such places.
Social Advisors can be would-be Mentors who don’t have time for a personal commitment, or they might be more of an entrepreneurial peer that’s not in the Friend category (see below). They won’t get to know you or your company as well as Mentors and Friends, and they have little to no commitment to you personally, but they want to be helpful when opportunities present themselves.
They can provide insightful on-the-spot feedback, and I try to be prepared to use Social Advisors in this way, ideally by having a specific question ready when I see them. And then a new question when I run into them again the next month. Hopefully, this isn’t a one-way street, and I can provide them with useful feedback, too. At the ExitEvent Social. Which is held monthly.
These aren’t my buddies from college. They’re close entrepreneurial friends. Ones I trust entirely, and whose input I value. I have a couple of these who I meet with monthly, one-on-one or in a small group. They tell me what’s going on at their startups, I give feedback, then we talk about my startup.
With Friends I discuss long-term vision down to minor design changes. We act as test users for each other, exchange emails weekly, and generally try to provide whatever we can for each other while running our respective companies. Mutually supportive, lots of transparency, never a need to impress them.
Of course, not everyone in my advisory network fits neatly into one of these categories. And what defines a Mentor, Social Advisor, or Friend isn’t just the qualifications of the person—it’s the type of relationship I develop with him or her. Roles change as relationships develop. But recognizing these different types of roles in the advisory network —and the unique benefits that each offers— helps me keep all roles full, all the time.