It's not the Mentors — it's the Mentor Program
I’m going to go out on a limb here. I guarantee that good startup mentors exist everywhere, even in your neck of the woods. Without any more evidence than my personal experience—working alongside hundreds of mentors and entrepreneurs around the globe, including such far off places as Brussels, Moscow, and Kuala Lumpur—I’m willing to bet there are good mentors among you, and even that you likely know and interact with some.
While most mentors (certainly myself included) could be better, most have the qualifications, the commitment, and the passion to help startup entrepreneurs. Why then, is the No. 2 complaint that I usually hear from entrepreneurs about the lack of quality mentors? (No. 1, of course, being the lack of startup capital.)
What they’re missing without knowing it, is a quality mentor program: the way mentors are utilized, not the mentors themselves. And therein lies the rub. Mentor programs are hard. Most startup communities can find good mentors, but managing them while ensuring benefits to the entrepreneurs is hard.
The organizations that support startup communities are usually well-intentioned, but in trying to balance the needs of mentors against versus the needs of entrepreneurs, many programs are left wanting. Over the past few years, I’ve helped to foster a network for mentoring tech entrepreneurs in San Diego. Below, I propose a framework for a building a mentoring program.
By their very nature, mentor organizations depend heavily on external resources: Corporate sponsors, investors, mentors, volunteers, etc. But in serving their patrons and other constituents, it’s easy for these organizations to lose sight of the fact that their customer should be the entrepreneur.
Mentor organizations must keep foremost in mind: What does the entrepreneur need? And what “moves the needle” today?
On the other side, what’s in it for the mentors? Ideally, mentors are motivated primarily by a desire to give—give to the program, give to the community, give to the entrepreneur. The last thing a program should do is disrespect or somehow diminish the giving the mentor wishes to offer. The program and the entrepreneurs should be encouraged to take specific steps to graciously convey their gratitude. These could be as simple as a social media shout-out or as much as equity, depending on the situation (mentor becomes advisor).
The most important thing is to make it easy on mentors and to respect their lives outside the program.
Various mentor programs I’ve experience in accelerators, universities, and incubators are primarily based on one or maybe two of these characteristics:
Mentor as presenter: Various mentors are brought in to speak to a group of entrepreneurs. These are very educational, and they can provide a lot of benefit. But it’s not truly mentoring.
Mentor office hours: Mentors make some personal time available so entrepreneurs can schedule a one-on-one meeting. It’s reasonable to think these should work, but generally they fall short. Entrepreneurs need more hand-holding.
Mentor as pitch consultant: Programs geared ONLY on coaching an entrepreneur on a final pitch to investors are failing to identify what that entrepreneur needs NOW.
Mentor speed dating: Programs that provide high-quality, short interactions with mentors are GREAT, but insufficient.
A fully functional mentoring program requires ALL of the above! And more. What’s really missing is the concept of providing ongoing support—especially support based upon measurable progress. The key to it all is defining measurable progress, which, of course, varies from startup to startup. (More on this below.)
Techstars and YCombinator might have superior mentors (success breeds success), but I believe it’s their mentoring programs that set them apart from other accelerator programs.
The Techstars program is divided into one-month trimesters. The first month is completely dominated by mentor meetings. The second is about getting a product built and in front of customers. The third is preparing for funding via customer acquisition and pitch coaching.
According to a recent Techstars graduate, Al Bsharah of Embarke, he and his co-founder had five to six meetings per day with different mentors for the first month. After 4 weeks, Bsharah and other founders chose two to three mentors with whom they work closely for the rest of the term. The choice is mutual, based on needs, rapport, and passion. This is mentor dating on steroids!
To another Techstars graduate, Rares Saftoiu of Shopventory, the mentors are there to kick ass. It’s not simply advice, it’s making demands that simultaneously teaches the entrepreneur how to be a better entrepreneur AND moves the company forward. In The Lean Entrepreneur, we tell the story of the Techstars graduate Simple Energy, wherein a mentor demanded that founders go speak with 20 utilities about their business plan. And like Steve Blank would predict, the plan lasted one day in the market.
Challenging entrepreneurs in this way is what separates great mentor programs from “hit and run” mentoring, which offers advice without follow-through and puts the onus of managing the mentoring relationship solely on the founders. Successful programs design a program to maximize the potential for the founders’ success. If this means kicking them in the ass, then let the kicking begin. Such programs, of course, don’t guarantee success. But designing the program with this philosophy increases the likelihood that a) the founders find what works; or b) they learn as quickly as possible when an idea won’t work. Of course, (b) is better than (c), which is where companies “graduate,” or are spun out of a mentoring program without a clear path toward growth or a clear path toward a pivot (or bullet).
Without putting a time frame on individual elements, the general framework might look like:
Mentor speed dating: As part of Startup San Diego (not affiliated with UP Global), Austin Neudecker and Melani Gordon spearhead a mentor “speed-dating program,” whereby several times a year founders choose four mentors from a curated list to meet with, in one evening or morning event. The program works because they make it easy on both the startups and the mentors to sign-up, show up, meet, and go on their merry ways. Both founders and mentors rate their experience in order to keep the quality high. Those with consistently poor scores are not invited to return.
Mentor and “domain expert” presentations: Getting expert advise from those that have “been there, done that” is extremely valuable. Some experts don’t have the time to mentor founders one-on-one, and some topics are better presented in groups than in one-on-one sessions.
Choosing a mentor: A full program would encourage founders to meet with as many mentors as possible to figure out the two or three they’d like to work with more closely. Founders and mentors would meet at least every other week to provide updates on specific action items, progress on specific metrics, current needs, and to determine their objectives for the next week or two.
Establishing customer metrics: A startup’s progress must be monitored and pushed forward. The only way to do this is to put a stake in the ground (here’s what we should accomplish in the next week or two) and measure against that stake. Not achieving the objective is the beginning of the conversation, not the end, and leads to actionable measures that can be taken.
Metrics vary, depending on the type of business, the customers, and the startup’s stage of development. The mentors work with the founders to formulate a set of hypotheses around which the startup’s progress can be measured. The organization might facilitate tracking, but fundamentally, the founders should be supplying the mentors (and other stakeholders) regular updates on specific data values.
Early on, founders must be able to articulate the problem they’re solving and describe their ideal customer. My framework calls for creating a “customer advisory board.” This board isn’t an equity-based board, but rather a panel of early adopters who face the kind of problems the startup wants to solve, and who would be interested in a prospective solution. Customer metrics might look like this:
—Meeting with x number of mentors, domain experts, and industry experts each week.
—Talking with x number of potential customers per week.
—Recruiting x number of customers who have agreed to join the advisory board (3-5 business-to-business; 10-15 business-to-consumer).
Establishing product metrics: All startups make a promise to their customers. The promise forms the basis of messaging and positioning. The promise encompasses the utility of addressing the customer’s pain or passion. Customers are “satisfied” with the startup’s product when the promise is fulfilled. So founders must hypothesize what level of functionality would be required to address the pain and fulfill the promise. This becomes the proposed “minimum viable product.” Founders should be able to hypothesize what it would take for a customer to be satisfied. Product metrics could be:
—Hypothesize the functionality required to fulfill the promise. (If we do x, y customers will do z.)
—List specific actions by customers that indicate their level of satisfaction. (Upload 2 videos/week, shares with > 10 friends/week; transactions/customer/day.)
By the way, satisfied customers don’t help a company grow. But passionate customers share products with their friends and colleagues, send invitations, provide testimonials, “show off” the product, give case studies, etc. Passionate customers put new potential customers into the top of the marketing funnel without spending a dime on marketing! Achieving passion is not easy, and often goes beyond the product itself. It is part of what Geoffrey Moore calls the “whole product”.
It might be that a startup provides exceptional support or value in its marketing or sales. Sometimes the user experience with the product is so “delightful”, or has such a deep emotional impact, it results in “passion.” At this point, we’re really talking about the startup’s brand. Some metrics for igniting passionate customers:
—Hypothesize the product functionality required to emotionally impact the customer (If we do x, y, customers will do z.)
—Hypothesize other aspects required to achieve passion. (If we do x, y customers will do z.)
—List specific actions by customers that indicate passion (Customer agrees to be part of a case study, shares product with x number of friends, high net promoter or must have score.)
Establishing marketing metrics: Marketing—especially the buzzword-du-jour, “growth hacking”—is sexy to entrepreneurs and mentoring programs alike. In my opinion, most startups in mentoring programs should be firmly planted in the learning phase and not in the execution phase of marketing. In other words, it’s too early to measure growth. Startups should be running experiments to learn marketing and sales funnel dynamics, as well as the cost and effectiveness of various customer acquisition channels. Moreover, they should be running experiments to disrupt traditional— i.e. yesterday’s—marketing and sales channels.
Early marketing and sales is about learning. But startups really do need to acquire “tranches” of customers in order to recruit them for the customer advisory board, to perform usability testing, and to establish what results in “satisfaction” and “passion.” Acquiring these first customers is a great opportunity to test acquisition channels and buying processes. The actual metrics vary widely by business model, but might include things like:
—Identifying the cost of customer acquisition per channel.
—Describing what it takes to convert customers by price.
The point of all this is to create a reproducible process for getting revenue that covers the cost of acquiring customers. (This is not the same thing as profitability!)
Pitch training: How to tell a story is more important today than ever before. Each startup must rise above every other startup AND existing businesses in a battle for budget and mindshare. For most startups, IP protection is less important than customer relationships. The depth of the relationship is the only true protection. Storytelling goes beyond product features and benefits, and appeals to the emotional needs of customers, partners and investors. ALL startups need pitch training from coaches who know how to pitch. Preparing startups to pitch investors is the most common objective, but sometimes raising capital is not the startup’s primary need. Still, pitch training is invaluable.
The program I’ve outlined here might be difficult to implement and manage. But mentoring is hard, and a mentoring program should be able to meet its own metrics in terms of serving its customers. Investors should expect nothing less, and therefore should approve the management fees needed to make such a system work. Not all organizations can be led by independently wealthy, non-salaried, “retired” entrepreneurs who are just trying to give back.
Most accelerator programs don’t have the success of Techstars and YCombinator due to some lack of quality mentors or passion, but because of a lack of a disciplined process that pushes founders toward success. Ironically, efforts that do not aggressively push entrepreneurs may be creating a class of “needy” entrepreneurs.