What to look for in a mentor

- July 19, 2018 3 MIN READ

Whether you’re a budding entrepreneur who’s in the early days of bootstrapping, or your startup is ramping up and you’ve just secured VC funding, having a mentor to bounce ideas off of and discuss the pain points you’re going through can make life so much easier as a founder.

Aside from choosing someone that you have a great rapport with, it’s important that they have a similar vision and set of goals. If you are growing big and fast, you need someone who has the same mindset, yet can warn you about the risks.  If you are going for long-term success, a mentor who pushes too hard to go too fast can be just as detrimental to your goals.

One way to begin your mentor search is to create a list of leaders you admire and determine what traits you admire about them. Then, narrow this list down by establishing who you know that meets this set of traits and ask the same question of those within your industry.

Once you’ve developed this mentor shortlist, there are three key things to look for in the people you’re considering:


While you want to work with someone who’s got your back, it’s important that you choose someone you know is going to provide you with honest feedback, and who will do this constructively. On the flip side, it’s important that you don’t engage with someone who ends up being condensing or controlling, or only knows how to take a “tough love” approach to your relationship.

Having the right balance of great feedback that will help you grow, and the courage to do this in a way that fits with you and your personal values will make all the difference in a mentor/mentee relationship. A mentor who respects your work to date and knows how to treat you with respect will make for a long-standing relationship where both parties will reap the rewards.

I’ve had mentors who would confront me when I wasn’t thinking right, and I’ve had mentors who were quick to comfort me when they saw I was struggling.  Both kinds are needed, and if you can find both traits in one single person you are very lucky!

Industry knowledge

While the person you choose doesn’t need to know every single detail about your industry, choosing someone who has connections in your line of work can be helpful – but don’t think a mentor is there solely to give you leads.

I know that many of the companies working in the defence sector who went through the 2017 Techstars Adelaide program really appreciated the industry knowledge that companies like Thales and Boeing were able to provide them with.

Mentors will often know who you should speak with at networking events, and how to best engage with them. Knowing whether the CEO of a big company prefers to meet for coffee or have an email conversation first, how they best work and what projects they have in the pipeline may seem trivial, but this information can create thoughtful networking conversations and genuine opportunities to help each other.

With the right industry knowledge, your new mentor may be able to provide answers to these questions, recommend future clients to pitch to, and provide insights into how how to get the best results from initial meetings.

Mutual gain

Creating a successful mentorship is often done by all parties viewing the relationship in a reciprocal way. Instead of asking “What can I get from a mentor?”, ask yourself “What can this relationship help my mentor achieve?”. At Techstars we call this having a #GiveFirst Attitude.

Mentors should get just as much out of the relationship as you do, and having them learn from you and your fresh viewpoint may prove valuable to them. It may not be a monetary gain that you provide them with – as many successful people tend to view differing experiences from younger people as reward enough – but there is clear value in working with people at different stages in their startup journey.

Once you’ve gone through your checklist on the quest to find the right mentor for you, remember that many traits can only be judged once a mentoring relationship begins, so it’s best not to commit to an intense schedule of meetings for six months into the future before you begin working closely with this person.

With that being said, if the mentor you have in mind still appears to fit your requirements, it’s now time to ask them whether they’re interested!

Remember that there’s also a place for you to give to your community as a result of this partnership. #GiveFirst is at the core of what we do at Techstars – it’s even in our code of conduct.

Everyone is busy, but finding an opportunity to give back to the startup community is crucial to sustaining the ecosystem, and generating more genuine relationships and connections.

And it is never too early to think about being a mentor yourself. Plenty of people have not made it as far as you have and may welcome your insights.

Terry Gold is the Managing Director of Techstars Adelaide; Techstars’ first APAC accelerator that has a focus on defence. An entrepreneur, startup and business growth expert; he has worked in technology leadership roles for over 25 years.