Unlock the Magic of Mentors

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Startups are hard. Challenges and obstacles are everywhere and founders need all the help they can get.

But what if there were people that wanted to help? People with hard-earned experience who wanted you to learn from their mistakes. Because they love helping startups, no strings attached. Sounds amazing, right?

That’s the magic of mentors! And every founder should have them. At Techstars, our programs are 100% mentor-driven. Each program has 80-100 mentors and we push our companies to identify several program mentors who can spend at least an hour per week with them. I love talking to Techstars alumni who still meet regularly with their program mentors years after graduating from Techstars.

So how can you find amazing mentors and what should you look for?

First: Know What You Need Help With

Make a list of the top areas you need help with. For example: fundraising, marketing, product development, or distribution. Then seek out experts in those areas. Be targeted rather than seeking general business advice.

What To Look For in a Mentor

Great mentors advise startups just because they love to help. They don’t start the conversation by asking how much equity they’ll get. Techstars has this really cool list called the Mentor Manifesto. It’s a set of values and characteristics we want our program mentors to have. Here are a few:

  • Expect nothing in return (you’ll be delighted with what you do get back)
  • Be responsive
  • Clearly separate opinion from fact
  • Guide, don’t control
  • Provide specific actionable advice, don’t be vague
  • Be challenging/robust but never destructive

Where To Find Amazing Mentors

Be proactive and put yourself out there! Start with your network. Get warm intros whenever possible. One method is to connect with fellow entrepreneurs who are at least 2-3 years ahead of you. Some experienced investors can be great mentors, separate from any investing. Also, don’t be shy about reaching out cold to potential mentors if you have some things in common – industry, hobbies, even where you went to college. Anything that can be a foundation for a potential relationship.

Where should they be located?

Technically they can be anywhere and Skype with you, but I’m a big advocate of having local mentors whenever possible. There’s just no substitute for grabbing a coffee or beer every week or two.

How to initially engage mentors 

It’s easier than you think. Simply reach out and say you’re looking for feedback on “x” (something in their wheelhouse) and ask them to grab a coffee or beer. Don’t ask them to be a mentor right away. Meet with them a few times. If after that you have a great connection and think they’d be an amazing mentor for you, ask if they’d be open to meeting on a regular basis.

Don’t pursue someone just because they’re a big name. Find someone who can give their time and provide you with relevant, specific advice. Mentors are for you and your business, not for PR purposes.

How to build the relationship 

Keep meeting and sending updates! It’s up to you to keep the relationship going. Ideally, set a recurring time to meet. Continue to have specific asks. Mentors are usually very busy people – don’t let it go cold!

How many mentors do you need?

I get this question a lot. At Techstars we recommend 2-3 “lead” mentors as the sweet spot. However many it is, you need enough time to meet with them every 1-2 weeks. Each should bring something different to the table. Don’t collect mentors; be choosy and strategic.

How it might evolve

Over time, a mentor may continue on as your mentor; you could add them as a formal advisor; they may invest in your company; and sometimes the relationship becomes reciprocal.

Great mentors are invaluable to founders and can make the startup journey a lot less painful. They can be part business advisor, sounding board, and counselor. The best ones last a lifetime. Once you unlock the magic of mentors you’ll wonder how you ever got by without them!

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