How to best work with a mentor


Entrepreneur Kerry Ritz mentors many early-stage startups across the globe, sharing his experience with those making their first steps into business. In this Q&A, he explains how to develop a good mentor-mentee relationship

As the entrepreneur-in-residence at the Barclays Accelerator powered by Techstars in London, Kerry Ritz is no stranger to mentoring startups.

He sits on several boards as a non-executive director in later-stage companies across FinTech, CleanTech and a variety of other technology businesses. But as a mentor, he tends to work with early-stage startups, including on various accelerator programmes like the Barclays Techstars programme and the wider Techstars accelerator.

In this Q&A, Kerry explains how to best work with a mentor.

What's your experience of mentoring?

I've been mentoring for six or seven years now. I was involved in the startup of the Microsoft accelerator. I ran Mass Challenge UK, which had a heavy mentoring component, and I’m a mentor with Techstars which is a mentor-driven accelerator. I've mentored across a variety of both formal programmes and informal relationships. In the last couple of years, I've increased my mentoring activity. But it's an ebb and flow. Some companies reach a natural cycle where they need different sets of skills. And, in the post-Covid environment, I’ve been doing a lot more remote mentoring in places like Switzerland and Israel.

How important is mentoring to the success of startups?

Good mentors can make or break a startup. A startup is generally trying to solve a problem or find a business model, so there's lots of uncertainty. Often, founders have a lot of knowledge gaps too, whether that’s technical, commercial, regulatory or customer. So the best form of mentoring is helping founders access people with that expertise. It could be functional knowledge, such as go-to-market strategy or product development, or it could be more strategic, focusing on the value proposition. Or perhaps they just want a sounding board—someone to bounce ideas off. I work with a lot of solo founders who don’t have co-founders to talk to. Being a start-up founder is a pretty lonely life. So, having that trusted relationship helps keep the Founder sane.

What is the thing that most founders want from a mentor?

Founders often will have one of two styles. One is looking for a mentor to help with a problem they have based on the mentor’s experience. The mentor may have a great depth of experience that helps them address that problem, or can look at a problem differently. The other founder is not looking for something prescriptive. What they're looking for is a sounding board, and it becomes a back and forth conversation. At the end of the chat they say, ‘Yeah, I've thought about that, I can go down this direction’. That person may bring a set of three or four issues and sometimes we can go a bit off-piste, leading to a different set of issues. At the same time, mentors have to be careful about diving too deep into operational detail since they will lack the context of that at the beginning. One has to be careful about relying on previous experience since every context will be different.

What are the advantages for mentors in working with multiple mentees/founders?

Firstly, the relationship is a two-way street. Many mentors do it because they learn a lot from the founders.  They might park away some lesson learned by one mentee because it will become relevant at some point in the future. A month later, you may find someone who has the same issue and you can put them in contact. Everybody goes through the same set of problems at some stage. Sometimes, bringing together two start-ups who have similar problems will add much more value than me acting as a sounding board. Being responsive is also important. Founders are juggling 100 balls and it won’t be long before they have 300 balls. 

How do mentor-founder relationships develop?

Like any other relationship—it takes time. You can have a very transactional relationship during an accelerator. But, outside of that formal, structured environment, it’s like building any relationship. One can have the expertise, the knowledge and the skills, but somehow there is no chemistry. It’s a total package and not all relationships work perfectly. You also need to understand the different working styles, approaches and expectations. Again, just like any other relationship.

Is there a mindset or approach to mentoring that founders should adopt?

The cookie-cutter approach does not work. A mentor needs to know that the founder is interested and open. Are they interested in learning from the mentor? Are they willing to be open and transparent about their problems? If you're dogmatic about your ideas, no mentor is going to want to work with you. And why are you bothering working with mentors if you know all the answers? I've met people who think they know all the answers and they're not willing to listen. From a mentor’s perspective, there's only so much help you can provide. As a founder, you need to decide what you want from the relationship.

How have things changed because of Covid-19?

Going remote means I can spend more time with more companies, simply because I don't have to worry about going from meeting to meeting. Sometimes I will park myself at Rise and founders come to me, using up their time instead of my time. So, what's happened during Covid is it becomes a diary slot on the calendar. None of us are going anywhere. It's easier to schedule as well. So, I think startups may end up getting more mentor time than before and I can choose how I deploy that excess capacity.

What's your advice for anyone considering finding a mentor?

Try before you buy. It's like going on a date. Most people are not going to marry a person they’ve had one conversation with or partner with the first company they meet at a trade show. Do you find the person interesting? Does the mentor enjoy hearing about your challenges? The other thing is to look for diversity, specifically diversity of thought. Don't necessarily look for a mentor that has expertise in your sector. Look for people with a diversity of experience that can help bring a different way of thinking to you. For example, if you have a very technical background, which is highly structured and rigid—look for someone creative that will force yourself out of the comfort zone. 

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