Tips for Being an Effective Startup Mentor

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Talented mentors may make positive contributions to teams whose work holds great potential.  Much has been written about community service, economic development, and other reasons why to mentor… here are a few suggestions about how to mentor, beyond simply sharing what and who you know:

“Time and tide wait for no man.”

I like to tell teams that their time is more valuable than mine, if perhaps not by some measures, certainly by this one: most mentors enjoy successful careers and stable circumstances, while startup half-life rates are closely monitored.  Resources are scarce and competitors are coming.  Teams should maintain a sense of urgency that your counsel should reinforce. 

"Help establish the value of their time by making it valuable relative to yours."

Calibrate.  You’re not for everyone.

Share useful background information with the organizers of the group that invited you – accelerator, investment club, incubator, etc. – so that they understand your capabilities and can identify which teams have the greatest potential to benefit from working with you.

As you get to know a team, quickly ask yourself if you’re capable of refining and improving upon their idea, or if you’re simply admiring it.  You will know much faster than the teams if you have something valuable to offer as a mentor.  Out of respect for your industry pedigree and participation in the program, teams will wait longer than they should for you to contribute in a useful way.  If you can’t help, move on.  If you’re a fan and want to stay involved, invest, or connect the teams with others who can help.  

When you’re matched with teams whose weaknesses aren’t complemented by your strengths, everyone’s time is being wasted.  

Listen.  Longer than you think you should.

If a team is developing something worthwhile, it is probably a new idea, with nuances you haven’t anticipated.  Even if you intuitively and quickly understand the story, give the team a chance to fully describe it.  How they pitch can be as important at this stage as what they’re pitching, and given enough time, they might reveal finer points that end up being the focus of your insights.

Think about homework.

Not for them—for you.  If you’re doing your part, your experience and relationships will translate into advice and networking introductions that keep teams productively occupied.  But for every hour I spend with teams, I find it’s typical to spend another hour doing things on their behalf, such as making introductions, reviewing collateral, testing the product/service, playing with the business model, and so forth.  You may find that you’re able to constrain your mentoring to time spent with the teams, but I find some of my best contributions are made in the space between meetings.

If you see something, say something.

There’s no shortage of “fail faster” admonition in the entrepreneur ether, but this one bears repeating.  Don’t hold back.  Letting children learn from their mistakes might build character, but letting teams make mistakes you could have helped them avoid is no way to build a company.