Things to consider when it comes to mentors and startups

Let us talk about an issue that is now losing its meaning: I am referring to people who are mentoring startup companies. As I’ve mentioned before, the word “mentor” comes from Méntor, a character of Homer’s epic poem Odyssey, Telemachus’ counselor. And this role of being a counselor or a guide can also be related to the idea of a schoolmaster, a person in charge of guarding children or young people and caring for their upbringing and education.

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Image courtesy of Le Camping at Flickr.com

When it comes to startups, the most fitting definition is the first one, the one that refers to counseling and guiding. These brand new companies need a person who will, especially at first, give them added value in the form of business ideas, contacts, advice on mistakes not to be made, among others.

I am among those who have argued that this is a good idea, that you have to use all possible resources and surround yourself with mentors or advisors. Regardless of how you call them, it is something interesting. And in life there are situations that are white, black and many different shades of gray in between, and it is certainly safe to say that extreme cases have increased lately.

And sometimes those extreme cases are diminished when we ask ourselves certain questions, when we think of the key factors to choose -or not to choose- a mentor. Here are those basic questions:

  1. Do I need it? This is a question that should definitely be asked, because you may not need it.
  2. What do I want from this mentor? What do I need and what don’t I need?
  3. How can I measure his or her participation in my startup? What am I going to demand?
  4. What am I going to give him or her? Do I even have to give something?

Because a mentor should be someone who is involved in your project, someone that you can be demanding of, and someone with which you can adequately assess their participation.

And you have to be very demanding: either you have the best or you don’t. Because having mediocrity and giving shares to mediocre people is very dangerous.

These are the points you should consider and look after in order to work, if you have decided that you do want to have a mentor:

  1. I said it already: either you have the best or you don’t.
  2. What do you need? Because a mentor’s thing is to see what your weaknesses are and in them is where you should try to look for a mentor.
  3. Don’t value things that are payable or things that cost very little. An article about your company in a blog is not really worth anything, just a few visits a day that will take you nowhere. If your company is a good one, journalists and bloggers will want to write about it when you contact them. They lack news and good examples.
  4. What is unpayable is that the person gets involved as if this was his or her company. And if you really think you deserve it, you can even ask them to invest.
  5. Measure through a contract what you want, how much of it and how do you want it. Pretty faces are not worth it just because they’re pretty. Always demand dedication and do it in writing, and as you have probably chosen your mentor for a reason, ask him for added value in what you know he’s best.
  6. Do not hand out large stakes, even more so if the mentor is not an investor.
  7. Get away from people who do this in an organized way. If this is your business, if you are a professional mentor, you do not have any value.

Why would I want to have Bill Gates or Steve Jobs in my company if they don’t believe in my product or they don’t help me? They may attract people to invest, but don’t you realize that neither Steve nor Bill have time for you? I’d want to have many different innovative entrepreneurs as my mentors, but how many of those are company mentors? And if they are, how many investments have they truly made? I’m afraid the answer would be close to zero.

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Image courtesy of Dragan Sutevski at Flickr.com

In addition to the advice a mentor can give to entrepreneurs, the goal of this role is to help them build a business plan, polish their discourse and offer deep consulting with face to face feedback. The network of contacts that the mentor has made in his career, from allied companies, potential customers or investors, is made available to the entrepreneur.

If you’re good, everyone will know about it. If you’re not and you let bad mentors accompany you, and you’ve given everything to them, well you’ll be worse off than if you had not even begun at all.