Someone awesome once said about mentorship – The key to mentorship is to make someone more of what they already are. Not to make them more like you!
I entered the world of entrepreneurship six plus years ago, on 11th August 2012 to be exact. And since then I have had the privilege of being part of many mentorship programs. Initially as a raw startup entrepreneur and then later – after I sold my first venture – as a mentor. And in the course of my journey, I have come to realise the following – good mentorship can mean the difference between success and failure for entrepreneurs. In fact, a good mentor can be worth his weight in – not gold – but a founder’s sweat & tears.
And continuing in that vein, while some of my mentorship experiences were great and some not so great, some of them were downright hellish. The ironic part is that the road to this particular hell was paved with good intentions. That is because when accelerators, incubators or start-up forums organise mentorship sessions, they do so with the best of intentions. But most of the time, these intentions fail to translate into genuine value for the start-up.
When mentorship goes bad
Most mentorship opportunities or programs are basically a business version of speed dating events. The organisers basically grab hold of the most promising start-ups they can find and the most helpful mentors they know and get them into a room together on an appointed day. The intent to is to get them to interact for a scant 1-2 hours. And the first hour typically passes in just understanding what the startup does and basic rapport building.
Most of the time, not only does this not not add value to the startup but also does them active harm. How, you ask? Well, here’s how. Startup founders are generally an open-minded (can I say ‘confused’?) lot. They have a unique, potentially disruptive problem and multiple ways to solve it. And while some of them have a clear direction in their minds, a lot of them are struggling to find the answers on the fly.
In such a scenario, we often put mentors in front of them. Ones who don’t understand their business or problem deeply enough and give them superficial advice. This can actually be very detrimental to the health of a startup. Making this worse, is the exposure of a startup founder to multiple mentors, often on the same day. And from the same functional area. It’s a barrage of conflicting opinions and advice. And the founder is often left questioning his basic direction. This can destroy momentum and create massive anxiety. Tell me that’s a good thing?
But when mentorship does good
I had the pleasure of being part of the TiE Bootcamp in 2014. This was a volunteer-run no-equity, no-fee mentorship program that absolutely changed my life! The relationships I forged there with bootcamp cohort, last to this day. And they are my go-to people for any startup help that I need. It was also here that I found my mentor – Kanchan Kumar – who quite literally has saved my sanity on multiple occasions!
I often thought that the structuring and resulting excellence of that program was a one-off, a coincidence. But then again recently, I had the privilege of being part of another well-structured and thought-through mentorship process at the MAN Impact Accelerator program. And my experience there is what convinced me that there is a method to this madness.
Organised at the premises of the Yunus Social Business Fund in Bangalore, the MAN Impact Accelerator was directed and structured by Emil Lamprecht of Growth Mechanics and Arunima Singh from Yunus Social Business. I was a part of the Growth Mentors cohort with stalwarts like Sreeraman Thiagarajan (Founder of Agrayah Technologies), Gaurav Agarwal (VP Growth at Molekule) and Arjun Nohwar (Head APAC for Uber) and it was an experience to remember.
Here are a few of the things that I learnt from this program that I would encourage mentorship programs everywhere to adopt.
a. The art of startup & mentor matching
Not every mentor has the answer to every problem. And not every startup founder will be able to vibe with every mentor.
The art of matching a startup founder to the right mentor who can help with the current major problem in the startup’s journey is an art. And this art can only be achieved by a dedicated and experienced backend team that understands a startup’s journey and current set of problems thoroughly. Also important is the fact that the backend team needs to have the industry experience to identify which mentor may have the right expertise to help the startup. And the connections to get those mentors to the table.
It’s not a job for interns. Or freshers. But depressingly enough, that is who most mentorship programs are run by. And while I applaud the enthusiasm, it definitely does not make up for the lack of experience.
There is a certain vibe that happens when the right mentor is matched to the right startup. This where the mentor ‘gets’ the startup and the startup founder ‘trusts’ the mentor. When that relationship of empathy and trust is established, the time flies and ideas abound. There is no criticism from the mentor’s end, only a strong desire to help. And to play to a founder’s strengths. And the founder responds to that with increased confidence and willingness to look at unexplored directions. That’s when the magic happens and both parties leave the table feeling like something substantial has been achieved.
b. The need for detailed startup briefing
Every mentorship program I have ever been through, typically sends the mentor a brief on the startups that they will be mentoring. Most mentors don’t read the brief. And even if they do, they skim. And so most mentors turn up for the program typically planning to wing it. This is obviously not a good thing.
But even if they had gone through the brief in detail, it would not really have helped. A brief is generally about what the startup does and who the founders are. It rarely reveals where they are on their journey or the issues that they are struggling with at the moment.
The MAN Impact Accelerator mentorship program did this beautifully. Not only were we briefed on the startup’s business and founders, we were also given us deep insights into where the founders were in their journey and what they needed to take them to the next level. It was literally a brief for the mentor to add value because it identified exactly what we needed to target and the output we needed to generate by the end of that session. It brought tangibility to the session, an objective that united both the startup and the mentor. And allowed us to avoid the getting-to-know-each-other time wasting that typically eats up half the mentorship session.
There was another very special thing that the MAN team did. They used their insights into the founder personalities, to identify potential pitfalls that mentors could steer around. And also found ways to break through various mental barriers that the startup founders had. Those barriers which were preventing them from moving forward and gaining value from the mentor’s experience. This is a rare skill which I saw Emil Lamprecht deploy to great effect. Mind blown. Respect!
c. The criticality of program structuring
This was an aspect of mentorship programs that I had never seen before. Before the program started, we were part of a mentor on-boarding session where we were given a brief list of Dos and Donts. Simple yet deeply effective guidelines on how to conduct ourselves, guide the startups and add maximum value in the shortest possible time. Easy, sensible and fairly obvious. You would think so, right? But I have never seen anyone else do it!
The Handoff! This was absolutely my favourite part of the mentorship program structuring. And had to do with how they ensured that successive mentorship sessions built consecutive value for the founders, instead of conflicting with the previous mentor’s work & inputs. In addition to the startup briefing, every mentor was briefed on the work/advice/inputs offered by the previous mentor and made in turn to handoff the output of his/her session to the next mentor. This ensured that there was a cohesive structure to the inputs given to the founder and that every session built upon the last. Simply beautiful!
In conclusion, I think it’s commendable on the part of accelerators and incubator programs everywhere to put in the efforts they do to help mentor startups. But it is critical that it be done the right way, otherwise it can do more harm than good!