I launched my first startup while I was still in college, 16 years back. It shut up shop soon after.
I launched my second venture in 2004 and my third, in 2007. Both also shut down within one year of launch.
I could blame these failures on my naivete and the fact that there wasn't much of a startup ecosystem to offer guidance and inspiration back then. But I should also blame myself, because if there was one thing I could have done differently, it would have been to get expert advice and insight from people far more successful than I.
If only I had had mentors back then.
Flash forward to the present: I started my fourth, and current, startup in 2011 with mentorship this time, from two extremely successful entrepreneurs and investors. And throughout my journey, I’ve continued to reach out to experts from different domains for guidance and advice. From the experience I've accrued in working with these mentors, as well as mentoring many startup entrepreneurs myself, I’ve realized this is something you can’t really do without. You need experts to help you with insights and with options that best resolve your challenges.
One of the main reasons for accelerator programs such as Y Combinator or 500 Startups is the access they give to mentors and experts from different areas of business.
But when you do search for a mentor, there are several things to keep in mind, in order to make the best use of your mentor's time and build relationships with the right people who can help your startup grow. Here are three:
1. Know what you want from your mentor.
Why do you need a mentor at the current stage you’re in? Do you need help with something specific, or are you looking for validation of your idea? Seeking out mentors for idea validation is the single biggest mistake most startup founders make. I personally get five to eight emails every day from people asking what I think of their idea and whether I have any feedback. Two things here:
- The mentor/person you’re writing to may not be your potential target audience for the product. The idea has to be validated by your potential customers. If you can get someone to pay to use your product, there's your validation.
- Most ideas (if they don’t already exist) seem outrageous or weird, at first. Most of the "experts" and investors who initially reviewed the concept of Twitter rejected it. After all (they must have thought), who needs a 140-character texting vehicle?
So, don't worry about your idea's radical differences. Instead, look for a mentor for the correct reason: help with a specific aspect/challenge of your business.
2. Mentors should be experts, not generalists.
With that said, your mentors ideally should be experts in your industry, able to resolve the issues you’re facing. Don’t seek generalists, like startup founders, who are likely to give general advice.
You typically don’t need general startup advice because your particular product/service, market, customers and situation all differ from those of from other entrepreneurs. Instead, seek out those mentors who are the experts. For instance, if you realize that you’ve been spending a great deal of money advertising on Facebook without getting good returns, seek out that expert in Facebook or paid advertising who can best guide and coach you in leveraging this medium (along with other options).
3. Be creative when asking someone to be a mentor
Most people who are successful in their areas of expertise are inundated with emails from people asking for feedback or advice. So, you need to stand out and to be creative in your outreach.
When we encountered challenges with SEO in our own business, we reached out to the best SEO experts in the world, albeit in a creative manner: We set up an expert advice platform for entrepreneurs who, like us, had queries with regards to specific areas of marketing. We went and interviewed those experts and put their advice out as videos for a larger audience.
We benefited from that action, as have many startup entrepreneurs with similar problems. So, follow our example: Be creative in how you reach out or build a relationship, by following experts' blogs, commenting on their articles, retweeting their articles (by tagging them) and engaging with them on social media. Add value to their work before you expect something back.
And, then, shoot off an email to them with a specific query. Don't write asking for general advice.
Finally, don’t expect mentors to give you an hour of their time every week or, heaven forbid, every day, for your business. Consider these people sounding boards for the challenges you face or the specific ideas you want to bounce around. Mentors should be catalysts for your personal and professional growth. Just make sure you're not asking too much of them.