Here are is the outline I use when coaching early stage startups starting accelerator or incubator programs as they consider how to get the most from their mentors.
Goal: How to Optimize the Mentoring Experience for You.
If the smartest person in the room about
YOUR business is not YOU, we are all in trouble!
Mentoring is about making YOU smarter.
Dos, Don’ts & Don’t You Knows
Mentors don't have all the answers (or even ANY)
If the smartest person in the room about YOUR business is not YOU, we are all in trouble! Mentoring is about making YOU smarter.
Don't optimize; Don't optimize yet
Show all your mentors all your ideas - don't whittle things down too early or you don't get complete responses from all the mentors. Maybe the first mentor hates it, but the next couple will love it - but not if you don't show it to us
Don’t sell; don’t sell all the time
You don’t have all the answers, either (although you have some)
Honesty is the best way to get to know a potential, mentor, adviser, or investor
Much better to be open and have constructive disagreements than to hide the concerns, the unknowns, the challenges
Sell your passion and vision, but don’t be promotional or defensive
Adjectives are fine; save the superlatives
Mentors work for YOU (and for ourselves)
Ask us for things
Leverage our strengths - be aware of our gaps
Remind us gently of our offers to help / make intros
GIVE FEEDBACK about mentors - through the accelerator/incubator staff is fine!
If we don’t perform, fire us!
Don’t create special presentations just for your mentor meetings
Weekly emails are good; attachments are BETTER
We *might* read them
We will more likely refer back to them
Prepare for your Mentor meetings
Send the Agenda (questions, issues) ahead of time
Even if we don’t read it, it helps you organize your thoughts
Use Mentor Judo
Mentors want to be nice
Set up the question so that to be nice we have to give the real news you want
“I know we need to round out the team. What skills do we need to hire for?”
“The pitch doesn’t feel right to me yet. What suggestions do you have?”
Embrace the Egos, Opinions and Whiplash
Embrace it; it forces you to own your decisions
Make it a virtue: it shows you the panoramic 3D view of the possible solution space
Manage inflow; avoid distraction
Don’t take egos seriously (it’s bad enough we mentors do)
Are we Mentors or Investors?
(Some programs explicitly do not allow cross-over ... so this may not be relevant)
Mentors (like everyone) like to be nice, to say yes, to avoid saying no
The right kind of investor is the right kind of mentor, and vice versa
Clear communication about the bad stuff as well as the good is a great way for both sides to learn if we want to be in an investment relationship
Understand that even before someone is considering investing we might subconsciously provide advice which keeps you on track to be heading in our direction... “you should definitely be planning for a series A”
This is similar to mentor vs possibly hiring … even before we are sure we want to work full time with you, we might be subconsciously saying “you should definitely hire someone with a profile <like mine>”
Don’t ask “are you going to invest in my business” at the start - the answer is always going to be no or maybe
Instead ask what kind of investments we like to do when we do invest (so you know what our biases are when funding strategy discussions arise)
If we fit your investor profile then later in the program let us know you are hoping to raise money, would like us to consider investing and are available to answer questions
Team Dynamics: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing
In a mentor situation, mentors don’t want to touch the third rail personality issues (it’s hard, and we want to be nice)
About half of you will face team issues
use the safe space and excellent support to face it
SO PUSH IT IN OUR FACE - tell your mentors what is on your mind about your team
Mentors can be available to ALL the team
Confirm explicitly “we both agree you will be our mentor” and a schedule for meetings or contacts
There is a separate discussion to be had about mentors -> advisors -> board members. My advice is that for the duration of the program (and maybe longer), keep it fluid and informal. There will be time enough to formalize these relationships when things are a little more certain.
Common, or at least periodic, problems with Mentors
This is somewhere in the middle of our priority list
We want to be NICE (and don't have money in the deal, so we can be, or want to be)
We want to be right
We are drop-in visitors, and some inconsistently, and are way behind the plot
We don't get what you are really doing
We don't know your team or team dynamics
We have the wrong time frames
Mentor vs Investor
Always think we are right but change our minds (180 degrees) from week to week
Egos and opinions
Force fit our models on your startup
Have favorite techniques (useful but possibly irrelevant)
Have favorite fads (irrelevant but possibly useful)
Mentor whiplash (PS: not a problem - harness it!)