The Techstars Barclays Accelerator (in London) is kicking off and that means that mentoring season is upon us. And although I’m doing my best to ‘just say no’ to anything resembling work in the near-term, I’m still meeting regularly with a few founders and early-stage-career folks every month. In fact, I have a mentor session (facilitated by awesome London VC, LocalGlobe) in an hour, helping a young woman develop her near-term career plan.
So, that had me thinking about what I’ve learned about mentoring over the last 10+ years, and why I’ve continued to invest the time. Assuming you’re interested in the topic, I also recommend that you read the Techstars Mentor Manifesto — I haven’t read it prior to writing this post, so that it wouldn’t sway my own thoughts, but I try to read it at least once per year, as it gets my head screwed on straight before all-day mentor sessions.
These are my recommendations for being a good value-add mentor (in a startup-specific capacity):
- Listen (aka Shut Your Trap) – you’re not there to tell them what to do. You’re just as likely to be wrong. And they’ve thought about their idea for a long time. Admit that you would have told the AirBnB team that they were nuts. And you’d have told Uber to pivot to something else. So, squint your eyes and ears, to see if they’re creating the future.
- Ask Questions – these will often help the startup team think about their product, or their situation. This can often be a way to make suggestions without criticizing. And by answering your questions, you’ll help the founders prepare for the same from investors, potential employees, the press, and more. And those questions will possibly impact their product roadmap.
- Be Supportive – founders have enough fears and insecurities; they don’t need yours. I’m not recommending lying to them. But be tactful with your feedback.
- Give Honest Feedback – This is the complement to ‘Be Supportive’, and why I try to be brutally honest. I try to ask questions, explain my perspective, and then get back to listening.
- Qualify Your Feedback – always remember to qualify your feedback with “this is just my opinion — see if others share the same…”. Because they’re likely getting conflicting opinions from legions of people with opinions.
- Be Willing to Be Helpful – if you have an intro or lead that you think can materially benefit the founder, offer it (but don’t make it without getting approval from both sides). Do not be an over-introducer!
That’s my short list. I’m sure I missed a bunch, but if you follow the above list, you’d have a positive day for both you and the founders.
What did I miss?