James Powell is technical founder at Sellar, a digital solution that is looking to change the way that breweries sell to trade customers. We caught up with James to ask for his advice on mentoring and his experience of working with the mentors at CodeBase.
How important has mentoring been to you?
As a young technical founder I have a few years of real world experience but there are people out there with much more. So it's very important to get insights from those people in order to make the correct decisions – especially when you're working on a product that is potentially going to scale to a very large number of users.
You can very easily bottleneck yourself and put yourself into a corner, so learning from other people who have already developed scalable software is really important. Also, having a mentor to challenge your strategy is essential so that you don't make simple mistakes as you grow your business.
What sort of mentors have you had?
During my startup journey I've had the pleasure to work with a lot of different mentors - most recently through Eagle Labs’ partnership with CodeBase. I've been lucky enough to spend my mentoring sessions with Jim Newbery, the Director of Product Innovation at CodeBase.
Jim worked as a software engineer at FanDuel, which was originally a startup and is now a major SportsTech entertainment business. He also introduced me to Chris Stafford, who was the technical co-founder at FanDuel.
Have you always been open to mentoring?
Not always. During my previous startup venture I thought I didn't really need a mentor. But in hindsight, I think that was just because we hadn't found a fit for our products in the marketplace.
Can mentors help you scale?
We're constantly being asked to add features to our platform. We now work with more than 20 breweries and over 500 retailers, so it's quite a lot to manage for a three-man team. We’re helped by mentors who have been through that startup process, who've walked the path we’re walking and can relate to our scaling issues. It’s really comforting to know that the issues we have are normal for startups that are growing.
Do you need to have a certain attitude to work with mentors?
I would say that having an open mind-set is definitely useful. Mentors are going to challenge your opinions and make you think differently on things. So I would say you need to go into those meetings with an open mind-set and really listen to what they have to say. Afterwards you can reflect on what they’ve been saying and figure out what you think about it. They might not always be correct but they will have a good feeling for what may need to change.
How important is the chemistry between a founder and mentor?
I'd say having good chemistry is very useful because if you can almost treat a mentor as friend then you can connect with them on a deeper level. Being able to open up and have a bit of a laugh sometimes is definitely a good thing.
How do you prepare for a mentoring session?
I actually keep a set of questions that I add to when I feel like I need to get advice on a subject or specific problem. Then when I have my call with Jim I have a load of questions and I just fire them out and we just have a conversation. Normally those questions lead off into other things so we never get through the list. He will also provide reading material on the subjects that we talked about and will direct me to other people if he thinks that they're better suited to help.
Is there a good stage to use a mentor?
I'd say a mentor is really useful at any stage, whether you're in the idea stage or you're growing your business. At the idea stage, they're probably going to be tougher because your concept is not proven yet and there's a lot more room to change things. And during the growth stage it could be more about being able to identify where you're doing manual processes and where and when to automate them.
Will you carry on using mentors?
Definitely. Just having someone external look at your company is extremely beneficial. The most important point is that mentors really do challenge your opinions and your ideas. For example, I was chatting to Chris Stafford about some database architecture that I was working on and he was basically completely against it, and pointed out all of the flaws and the problems. I still love the idea but now I'm fully aware of the issues and how to address those, and how to make things much better.