7 Ways to Maximize your Startup Mentor Relationship
Startup success statistics are pretty straightforward on the benefit of business mentorship: small businesses and startups have a greater chance to survive and thrive when they are guided by successful entrepreneurs and business leaders. We all know that building a strong team is crucial to a company’s growth, and these individuals are part of your extended network of support who guide you on important business decisions and help build your resolve with their motivational inspiration. Here are a few tips to help you maximize your interactions and your mentor's impact.
Find seasoned and successful pros
We won’t spend a lot of time on sourcing and selecting a startup mentor, but it is still important to discuss. There are plenty of potential criteria for choosing mentors, but you should make sure you overlay specific company needs and industry characteristics to your selection process. If you are in software development, it would be in your best interest to find someone who has had a successful exit in that field and/or who is currently running a software company. In addition, if you have certain gaps that a potential mentor could fill from an expertise side, those should be included in the criteria.
Surround yourself with multiple (and unique) mentors
No one ever said you had to have one business advisor. In fact, you should surround yourself with numerous professionals who have varied expertise. That does not mean you shouldn’t pay for business services, such as accounting or marketing, where appropriate; however, an ideal startup will have a singular figure offer input on the direction of the business throughout the early lifecycle of the company and then have supplemental players fill in additional subject-specific gaps.
You also need a good mix of INSPIRATIONAL and TACTICAL advisors. When things are not going as perfect as you imagined, it helps to be able to call a successful CEO or entrepreneur to hear their advice on how they navigated the storms; and that person is likely going to be different from the one you call to help structure your business financials or intellectual property strategy. Note that business incubators and accelerators provide a vast array of mentors and opportunities to find just these types of professionals.
We stress coachability for our startup clients at the Center for Entrepreneurial Innovation all the time. It is a core criterion of our selection protocol, and it speaks to an entrepreneur’s ability to listen and absorb the advice of subject matter experts. Seattle startup law firm, Sophos Law, defines “coachable” as the ability to 1) Be humble 2) Be open and 3) Be grateful. One particular aspect of openness also includes honesty. Do not be afraid to discuss your own personal, professional and business weaknesses or gaps; that is the only way a mentor can offer truly authentic support. In addition, I would add two more to that definition: Be respectful and be accountable. We’ll talk about accountability in the next section, but respect means not only acknowledging your mentors’ work and expertise, but also being cognizant of their time. Don’t interrupt while they are speaking; don’t bombard them with questions, emails, phone calls over every little development in your business. Understand that they are giving you their time and energy, so be mindful of it all. These are simple traits in theory but hard to master. At the end of the day, you must recognize that you do not know everything and that you can benefit from the expertise of others.
Document and follow through on deliverables
Now that you are actually sitting in front of a mentor in a professional context, you can follow a few easy guidelines to maximize the meeting. Take notes throughout the interaction, paying particular attention to any deliverables outlined by the mentor. Writing them down helps you keep track, but from there you need to DELIVER on those objectives. This builds trust with your mentors and sets the expectation that you will follow through on future deliverables. This is really what we mean when we say be accountable.
Conduct regular check-in meetings/conversations
Ongoing touch points with your advisors offer the opportunity to assess challenges, set goals, evaluate opportunities and more for your startup. Don’t hesitate to initiate these conversations because it furthers the theme of accountability to your business and continues to convey your dedication to it. In addition, come prepared with an agenda of milestones, challenges, and updates from the previous meeting as well as a short list of items to discuss; but also be flexible as to how your mentor wants to drive the meeting.
Leverage their introductions and their network
“Knock the socks off of connections they offer.” That is what Travis Steffen of upshare.co recommends when a mentor makes an introduction to somebody in their network. As he posits, you should treat this new connection with the same level of enthusiasm and respect; after all, your mentor took the time to make a personal introduction to an individual whom he/she believes can be of value for your business. Don’t take it lightly. In addition, successful CEOs and entrepreneurs are successful for a reason - they have a large rolodex of personal and professional contacts, many of them successful in their own right. Be bold enough to ask for introductions to key figures, if the mentor believes it makes sense, and encourage their opinion on how to handle any interactions that result. Also, report back how it went so they are kept in the loop.
Get to know your mentor professionally AND personally
Rebecca Mahoney in an article for The Next Web cites the value of seeing your mentor in action in order to learn how they handle certain situations. Whether it’s attending one of their presentations or how they interact at a trade show or conference, these are opportunities to learn about their professional behavior and activities, as well as potentially meet individuals within their network. Beyond this, you also need to get to know them personally. Simple gestures such knowing the restaurants where they enjoy eating, the type of coffee they like, and politely inquiring about their family life go a long way to building a meaningful, layered and long-term relationship with a mentor.
Tell us about some of your favorite mentors, mentor advice or other tips you recommend for maximizing these relationships. Leave your comments below!