This Symbl for Startups content series separates facts about the founder journey from fiction — with a little help from program mentors and startup experts. For additional information about how early stage businesses can benefit from the Symbl for Startups program, reach out to [email protected].
Spectacular startup mentors are few and far between, even though everyone and their mother is on Twitter these days espousing pithy opinions on how to go about achieving success as a small company.
And yet the search is worth the effort: Locking on a business mentor (or two, or three) who can guide you through the early stages of raising capital, bootstrapping, building your product, finding partners, and especially uncovering your unique market fit will drastically improve your chances of survival in the ultra-competitive tech startup landscape.
Here at Symbl for Startups, we offer mentoring services of this nature aplenty, and have seen with our own eyes how transformative ongoing conversations with industry veterans can be for emerging entrepreneurs.
For those of you who are still shopping around for your dream mentor-mentee relationship, we’ve listed four ways to pinpoint quality ones and embark on rich connections with them below.
Identify which aspects of your business require support
To have a positive impact, your chosen mentor must be able to fill in the blanks in terms of skills that you and your team lack.
Are you hoping to eventually partner with Amazon, or launch via another high-profile platform? Then find someone who has had experience and success navigating those waters. Are you struggling to narrow down the pain point that your product solves? In that case, someone with extensive experience in the market you’re hoping to break into will have helpful insights. Having technical troubles? Find a former or current CTO who can meet you in the midst of that process without missing a beat.
Mentors can obviously also introduce you to those all-important people who write lucrative checks, but it’s never a great idea to push them in a heavy-handed way to pass along these contacts until you’ve established a solid relationship with the mentor and ascertained your business’ value in their eyes. Along these lines, while you may need cash ASAP it’s unhelpful to select a mentor based on their ability to personally fund your startup.
Understand different approaches to mentoring
How you learn and where you are at in terms of your product development should also influence the kind of mentor you pursue. Some mentors prefer to dole out advice in a prescriptive manner based on what they can gauge from your pitch deck or product demo. These relationships may be a little bit more one-sided, but they can work well if you are at the very beginning of your founder journey and are set on soaking up as much expert information as possible.
On the other hand, if you are the type of person who prefers more of an active dialogue-based mentor-mentee relationship, then you should seek out mentors who approach your periodic conversations by posing questions to help you sort out anything that might be going wrong. They might ask you where you see the company heading, how you plan to get there, and how they can best help you, among other pertinent questions.
Some mentors prefer a formal structured meeting setup, while others are good with you reaching out only when you need their help. Some mentors are better than others at being a shoulder to cry on and offering hand-holding during rough times.
Remember that all of these styles and personalities have their own merits and drawbacks, and it will take some work before you come across a mentor who offers the perfect formula for you—either way, you are going to have to use your own judgment in the end to decide what you’re going to keep and what you’re going to discard out of these conversations.
Where should you go to find mentors?
Mentors don’t have to be wizened old people with decades of experience—you could end up meeting someone who has just a few more years of experience than you in a given field and have your relationship naturally evolve into mentorship without that initial intention. It’s a good idea to strike up conversations with as many people as you possibly can at these kinds of events to increase your chances of finding mentors.
Quite literally anyone you come across who you deem worthy of your respect and who is willing to champion your company can be a potential mentor; don’t limit yourself to those people in certain age ranges or, again, those who have certain investor relationships. LinkedIn, former coworkers, thought leaders, or retired professionals in your field are all valuable resources to tap as well.
Recognize ‘mentor whiplash’
‘Mentor whiplash” is a real thing. When one mentor you love and respect says one thing, and another mentor you love and respect says the exact opposite, who’s right and who’s wrong?
Trick question! You have to remember in these cases that no one knows your business better than you do. You need to think about your customer. Take every single piece of advice you receive in stride and base your decisions on what you think is best for your customer.
A good mentor is not going to be hurt that you dont follow their advice like a robot. In fact, it will actually have the opposite effect. A good mentor will simply be excited to go on the startup journey alongside you, so be willing to be wrong as much as right and know that regardless you will learn along the way.
Stay open to criticism and mind your manners
Another thing a good mentor does: He or she will strive to never make you feel uneducated, uncomfortable, or on the defensive, but you need to understand that your business as it is in the early stages will likely change dramatically once you gain traction.
In fact, it probably must change in significant ways before you can make your idea work in a given market. Positive affirmations from friends and family are great, but they’re not going to push you out of your comfort zone and into the stratosphere.
The mentor-mentee relationship shouldn’t be a thankless one; let your mentors, once you have them, know regularly that you appreciate their pro bono support of your early stage business. You can report back to them regarding applications of their advice and how it’s working out for you. Believe it or not, that kind of feedback will just about make any mentor’s day.
Appreciate every late night, every casual coffee-fueled conversation, and every hard-won piece of truth that your mentor offers you as your nebulous startup idea becomes a tangible thing that exists out in the world. Come prepared to your mentor meetings so you don’t give anyone the impression that you’re wasting their time.
Once you have found a quality mentor, you will likely have them at your disposal for life across any project you choose to embark on. Mentorship is, at its heart, a relationship just like any other that deepens over time with mutual effort and encouragement.