Tips on the benefits of mentoring from experienced mentors and mentees in the startup community.
Here are seven key takeaways from a live event hosted by Barclays with panellists Steven Drost, Chief Strategy Officer at CodeBase; Danae Shell Co-founder & CEO, Vall; JP McCorley, Chief Technology Officer at Obbi Solutions and Samuel Smolkin, Founder & CEO at Office & Dragons.
A playbook can only take you so far
When building tech companies, there’s an idea that what you need to do it is teachable, that there is a playbook of problems that other founders have solved. This will help you recognise situations more quickly, label it and tackle it. This is true up to a point, says Drost. “Mentors can share their playbooks but there comes a point when you have to use your own thinking. A good mentor will listen, share their experience but also encourage founders to explore on their own.”
Embrace the challenge
A good mentor will challenge you and if you want to be successful you should welcome it. “I think that what I really get out of mentorship is people with a different experience, who make me reconsider the way that I'm looking at the world and cheerfully challenge me. I think a great mentor is someone who's delighted to tell you why they don't think you're right and is really forward and really interested in having that conversation with you,” says Shell.
“You need someone who's really going to be honest with you. Because you're not always going to have great ideas,” says Smolkin. It can save invaluable time and resource down the line if someone tells you early that you’re veering off-path. “I know for a fact we wouldn't have grown and be where we are today if we had stayed with our initial plan.”
Be clear on the aim
Have a clear understanding of the problem you're trying to solve before you approach a mentor. Once that is clear the mentor that you need becomes obvious – someone with credibility that has solved the problem that you are trying to solve, says McCorley. “A fool never learns. A smart person learns from his mistakes. A wise person learns from the mistakes of others, right?”
One size does not fit all
“I work with mentors as well as being a mentor and depending on who I'm talking to, some conversations can sound almost more like therapy while with others it's very transactional,” says Shell. “I think you need a lot when you're a founder, you're taking on a difficult job.” Impartiality is also essential to successful mentorship, ideally from someone outside of the business who can take a wider view and help you work through issues.
All your heroes had mentors
The biggest and brightest in your industry all had mentors and networks to pull from. This is a “default normal position”, says Drost. “We're trying to expose people to that understanding and see if they want to build something really big as well. The things you might be aspiring to, you need to know that these people didn't build up by themselves. They weren't a once in a generation genius that just came up with stuff. They relied on a massive network and on the legacy of reading and understanding and learning.”
A mentor can come from anywhere
Cast your net as wide as possible for a mentor as you could be surprised where the best come from, advises Smolkin. “Talk to folks you know. In my case other mentors have come through our initial investors.” Think of anyone in your network who is further along in their career. “I try to be humble and ask for help, because I don't have all the answers and I'm very open to talking to people who might.”
Showing you what is normal
You may not know exactly who your target customer is or your product’s exact market fit, which can create panic. The value of an experienced mentor is that they can explain what is normal at different points in your growth. If you are behind, they can point you in the direction of somebody who can help. “Having someone that can signpost you a little bit, tell you whether you're on track and how these things work, is super helpful,” says Shell.