What Does It Take to Find a Mentor in a Startup?

Startups hold a special allure for many people. But part of their shine may come from the relationships that form behind the scenes.

co_1118_lead_302Mentoring isn’t easy. It can be, if both parties are engaged and invested, but that’s often not the case. Mentoring also can hold different challenges in different work environments.

For instance, mentoring in a startup environment requires a dynamic approach and a networked process to be effective. Unlike other structured mentoring environments there is no mentor matching, no program guidelines, and no program manager to keep things on track. To be successful in mentoring in a startup environment both mentor and mentee need to take responsibility for setting goals and developing a plan to be successful.

It starts with the mentee trying to find the right mentor or mentors. Often a mentee is better off finding a group of mentors with skills in various areas such as formation, funding or technology rather than relying on a single mentor. Mentees should ask themselves: What type of mentor will I need at the various startup stages; ideation, conceptualization, pilot, minimum viable product?  Some mentor relationships will last a long time, others only while a startup is in a certain stage of development.

To find mentors the mentee has to start by getting the word out. Ideally, the mentee wants to find someone who is already in a desired position so they can relate to the challenges and point out opportunities from a similar perspective. Start the search with online tools such as Google and LinkedIn. Another way is to participate in the various meetups and co-founder events both physical and online. These events allow a prospective mentee to share what they’re looking for and meet others who are looking and may have contacts to share. Incubators and shared workspaces such as We-work, Coalition and others are also a likely place to look for mentors. Many universities have workspaces for those who want to start a company and create something new.

Once a mentee has a list of potential mentors, the next step is to reach out. Tools like LinkedIn may reveal existing connections who can make an introduction. Then reach out with the big idea and indicate how the person could help.

Once a mentor has been identified, determine their availability and interest. It is also important to see if there is compatibility from a personality perspective. Both parties should be relatable and able to communicate openly. If it’s a fit, determine when and how often to meet. Does it have to be face-to-face, or will an online channel work as an alternative? Before meeting, send out a potential agenda on desirables for the mentoring session. Providing some guidance before meeting can help the planning process and allow the mentor to be better prepared.

Often having a process or tools to work with can keep meetings focused and effective. Start with a free tool like the Business Model Canvas, for example. Having a structured tool makes the communication process easier. It also helps to lay out goals for the mentoring relationship before it begins.

Mentors should also make sure the relationship is a good fit for them. They’ll need to determine whether the mentee is approaching them because of their reputation, or because they need help in a specific area where they have expertise. It’s often flattering to be asked to mentor someone, but unless the mentor provides true guidance and help, the relationship may do more harm than good. If a financial investment is part of the relationship, it’s important to determine the ratio of advice vs. orders given. When money is at stake, individuals often respond differently.

There are also programs sponsored by government organizations, universities and community business associations that will help with mentor matching, but again, make sure the person offered is a person who can help. Mentors should prepare a few points for the first meeting to make sure it’s the right fit:

  • Know what you want from the relationship and test those wants with the potential mentor.
  • Determine what you will work on together and to what extent the mentor will get involved.
  • Determine how you will measure success.
  • Identify milestones to reconnect on and determine how the mentoring relationship will move forward.

Don’t forget to keep the mentor/s updated on progress. It is the least a mentee can do in thanks for their help.

George Vukotich is a partner at INOA Ventures and author of “Mentoring StartUps.” To comment email editor@CLOmedia.com.

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