As a founder, it is your responsibility to surround yourself with the right team, early adopters and investors, as they can make or break your business. However, it can be difficult to make these connections with an MVP, limited funding, and only a handful of clients.
There is a simple strategy that typically gets overlooked that can increase your startup’s chances of success more than anything else: working with a mentor.
When building a company, it’s beneficial to have battle-hardened advisors to help guide you through the ups and downs of a startup. A good mentor brings a different perspective to the table, provides invaluable introductions, and can save you days of work and heartache by providing you with informational shortcuts.
So the important question is: how do you seek out a good mentor and avoid the snake oil salespeople?
Think about what you need help with the most.
The first step is to take some time to think about what wisdom and insights you need most. Know that a mentor will not be your all-knowing Yoda, dedicating all their time to only you on an abandoned planet. However, like Yoda, a mentor can accelerate your growth and take you to places you never knew existed. Deep down, mentors are people who happen to have had success in industries and verticals that your company has chosen to focus on. What makes a good mentor unique is that they are willing to share their hard-won knowledge with you at no monetary cost.
Establish a mutually beneficial relationship.
This part is important: “no monetary cost.”
Paying someone to mentor your startup is a misalignment to the founder-mentor relationship. The entire reason for seeking out a mentor is to fast-track your way to a mutually beneficial goal. The goal is your unique reason for why you are dedicating your life to your company: why you are asking your early employees not to work at a big name company or another sexy startup. It is why you are asking investors to back you.
This is not to say that a mentor shouldn’t have additional reasons for giving you their valuable time and opening up their Rolodex for you. Indeed, a mentor worth their salt is worth shares in your company. You give a team member shares in your company, with a cliff and vesting schedule, of course. You offer these shares to align their current and future desires with your company’s. Consider doing the same with a mentor that will roll up their sleeves and bring quantifiable and long-term value to your business.
Network like a pro.
Now, find your Yoda. This isn’t as daunting as you may think. I drew Titans in my industry to give my company their valuable time with a little bit of planning, patience, a dose of ingenuity and a big scoop of engaging with people in the right conditions makes all the difference.
Technology meetups, hackathons and industry conferences are optimal environments for discovering your ideal mentor. Once you find someone who can help you achieve your goals, have a genuine conversation with them and let them know what you’re doing, why you’re going to be successful doing it, and how you think they could help.
Keep in mind that the advisor-founder relationship is slightly different than those you have with an involved investor. You must feel comfortable enough to be vulnerable with your advisor and show them works in progress, because they are there to massage your marketing and sales plans, help vet potential hires, and jump on last-minute calls to weigh in on your prioritized sprints. You need to have the trust in them to fully consider their words when they tell you something won’t work.
Your investors have a portfolio of companies to attend to. They excel at helping you with your next raise. Your Yoda is there to ensure you have established the correct KPIs and are hitting them every week.
Trust your instincts.
The final step is to listen to your gut if you are questioning whether a mentor is worth granting shares to or not. If there is doubt, they are not the advisor for you.
If they pass the gut check, move them onto a serious discussion of what exactly they will bring to your ecosystem. Make sure you get hard numbers and commitments in writing and signed by all. You can find some great jumping-off templates with a simple search. Finally, ensure that you protect your company’s IP: A good advisor will sign an agreement created to preserve the integrity of your business. A great advisor will suggest improvements to your agreements before signing.
Recall Yoda’s wise words when entering into a mentor-founder relationship: “You will find only what you bring in.”
BusinessCollective, launched in partnership with Citi, is a virtual mentorship program powered by North America’s most ambitious young thought leaders, entrepreneurs, executives and small business owners.