How to find the right mentor

- March 3, 2017 3 MIN READ

In my early days as a sailor, one of my mentors told me that anyone can learn to be a sailor, but no one can teach you to be a seaman. Seaman are made through years of experience on the open ocean in an almost endless range of conditions and situations – days out to sea with no one there to assist.

So when it comes to encouraging startup success, why are we expecting first-time entrepreneurs to set a course based on the advice of unseasoned mentors?

Today, everyone wants to be involved in what the cofounder of Investible, Creel Price, has labeled the “Entreprenaissance”.

With the recent influx of capital into startups, there has been a proportional increase in the number of incubators/accelerators and a corresponding increase in media attention. It seems every day there is a new hackathon, pitch competition, early stage investment fund, co-working space, incubator or a corporate innovation initiative.

Entrepreneurial talent has a plethora of options to develop the investibility of their ideas, their businesses and themselves. And all of these options within the startup ecosystem also offer coaches, mentors, judges and “experts” giving advice.

I’m not sure where this endless supply of experts in startups has suddenly sprung from. I think, however, that entrepreneurs need to be selective about what advice they take and consider carefully who is dishing it out.

It’s raining men(tors)

There are a few different types of mentors who can provide value to your business in different ways and at different stages.

First, there are subject matter experts in silos such as legal, finance, accounting, and licensing. There are also industry experts with vast amounts of experience in the industry in which you have chosen to focus. These advisors do not need to have been entrepreneurs or necessarily have been involved in a startup to have great subject matter knowledge. A sound understanding of the startup process and pressures of a bootstrapping environment is beneficial, but not essential.

When it comes, however, to your main business mentors or coaches, startups need to ensure that these people do have appropriate experience and knowledge and who have been a founder, cofounder or CEO of a startup.

In my mind, there is no substitute for the experience and knowledge gained by living through a great number of these entrepreneurial issues – those days out at sea. Finding a mentor who has relevant in-depth background and experience could save your business from failure or at least a great deal of time and a huge amount of money. Investors will also value you having access to the right team to assist and will value even more if they have invested in your business and are aligned with your success.

That’s not to say, however, that every experienced entrepreneur is a great coach or mentor. I have met many serial entrepreneurs who are constantly in ‘ideation mode’. They tend to be substantially better at talking than listening and regularly fall in love with their own ideas.

It’s all about having the appropriate coaches and mentors for the current stage of your business. Some entrepreneurs are great at ideation; others are better at strategy and execution. Some are great at scaling and some are great business builders.

You also need to think about the elephant in the room – “reward or compensation”. Investing in an advisor or mentor could be great for your business, even if money is tight, but remember cash is for now but equity is much longer term. Think about whether this coach or mentor is just for now or for the journey.

The other key requirement for a successful mentor relationship is a strong connection. This is a business relationship and you need to enjoy and value your exchanges. Often, in the case of a sole founder, your mentor may even become your sounding board – almost a “virtual cofounder”.

And if you think you don’t need anyone or it’s not worth it, I’d think again.

Investors definitely value you having access to a quality team to advise you and will value even more if they have invested in your business and are aligned with your success.

Having a strong mentor and advisory team shows that you have the ability to attract top talent that have confidence in your business model and ability to execute. It also indicates a degree of coachability and being open to and able to work closely with a team of experienced and skilled people.

Growing disillusionment with government and corporate culture is driving more people to entrepreneurship as they aim to add meaning and value to their working lives and make some positive change in the world.

So let’s start ensuring that when they find themselves in the rough seas of business, they have a true seaman by their side.

By Hugh Bickerstaff, Director of Investment, Investible.

Image: Hugh Bickerstaff. Source: Supplied.