Mentors: tips for early stage startups

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.

I was once voted a top mentor for startups, and have enjoyed mentoring at TechStars, HealthBox, MassChallenge, and in many roles in my VC years and now at OptumLabs. Feedback welcome!

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.

First start off looking at the Mentor Manifesto from David Cohen (et al) at TechStars: in it's original form and or as updated but very similar.

If your mentors do not seem to be tuned into this manifesto, think about how you are engaging with us (it takes two to tango), and then consider providing us feedback to get us on track.

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!)

Help make peace in the middle east

Please contact your congressperson and senator in Washington and ask them to support the BIPARTISAN bill creating a fund for peace building in the middle east.
See the Kids4Peace video explaining why this is so important:

A bipartisan coalition of members on the left and right is a bit of a miracle (and the product of lots of hard work)... As is the range of endorsers, which includes AIPAC, J Street, AJC, Americans for Peace Now, ADL, Churches for Middle East Peace, JFNA, Alliance for Peacebuilding, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, IAN, New Israel Fund and more.

Consumerisation of Health Care

I recently featured in a corporate video about the consumerisation of health care. I appear in the last minute or so (only a two minute video).

I think it provides an interesting flavor of some of the thought leadership at Optum (I work for OptumLabs, and Optum subsidiary), and some insight into major themes in healthcare today.

The backstory is that I spent some time being made up for a corporate video shoot a few months ago. 

The make-up took a few minutes, and then they interviewed me for an hour or two.

From that, they suggested some of the footage might be included in a corporate video.

The next thing I hear, a friend Moshe Cohen noticed the following on CNN Politics (phone screen shot). Thanks, Moshe!

Looking at UK and US Healthcare Systems

Here is a guest post I wrote for Healthblawg's 10th anniversary (with thanks to David Harlow for inviting me to contribute): US and UK Health Systems - Not So Different?