Mentors: The Hidden Key to Startup Success

Want to know the one thing that at least one in three tech startups considered successful have in common? Mentors. According to a well-known survey of New York Tech startups by TechCrunch shows that those founders who were mentored by other successful founders in their field were three times as successful in many areas. 

What do Mentors Do for Startups?

Mentors have several advantages over founders, and they go beyond the fact that they have been there and done that before. There are several things a mentor will do for your startup. 

First, mentors help you focus. Because they are not wrapped up in your day to day operations, they can see things from a bird’s eye view that you cannot. For example, let’s say you have several avenues where you can engage in digital marketing. The key may be to focus on and master one at a time rather than trying to master several at once. A mentor can see this and even help direct you to the most profitable avenue to focus on first. 

Second, mentors can share specialized knowledge it would be hard to get elsewhere. Whether they are an industry expert or a subject matter expert, they can offer insights into areas where you may be weak as a founder. An HR expert can help you shore up your hiring process and help you find the right talent faster. Others might specialize in marketing or organizational leadership. 

Third, a great mentor will stick with you long term, and offer value over time. If you continue to meet with your mentor regularly, they can often see where you may have taken a wrong turn, need more focus, or can even innovate into a new market. Mentors are often one of the most valuable members of your team. 

But how do you find mentors and maximize your relationships?

Finding the Right Mentor or Mentors

Finding the right mentor means establishing what you need from a relationship and what you can offer in return. Finding a good mentor is like dating: you need to know yourself before you can understand what you are looking for.

  • Start with honest self-reflection: Where are your strengths and weaknesses? Where do you need to learn? What does your business need?
  • Look around you: ask your network for recommendations, look at companies in your niche you admire, and look for someone who specializes in areas where you are weak. 
  • Have a network of mentors: If you are like the rest of us, you have more than one area you are weak in. Have a network, almost a board if you will, of mentors who help you with various areas of business, and develop a plan to meet with them regularly as individuals and as a group if you can. 

So you have found your mentors. What do you do now to make your relationships work? 

Making Mentorship Work

For a mentoring relationship to be successful there are some keys, and they come from the model for other relationships, but we often don’t think of them the same way. So here are some important things to remember: 

Realize you need help. Of course, you did this when you hired a mentor, right? Yes, but you need to keep it in mind as you talk to your mentor. Listen more than you speak. Ask leading questions. Be open about your company and your process. It’s the only way your mentor can know what is going on and how to help you improve.

It’s also easy to get so overwhelmed that you feel you don’t have time for mentoring. Don’t let it happen. Take the time, breathe, and listen. Often your mentor can offer a solution to your overwhelmed situation which can mean a breakthrough. 

Don’t just get, give too. Mentors are busy professionals giving you their time and expertise, and they really don’t expect anything in return. But often you will inspire them, you can help boost their business in other ways, and you can introduce them to others in your network. 

It’s not a one for one exchange or something you pay for, but a mentor’s time and knowledge are imminently valuable. Think of ways you can give back for all they do for you. 

Finally, set reasonable expectations. Your mentor may have only a certain amount of time to give you and may be experts in specific areas. Set up a time and a place to connect, stay on topic, and stick to the limits you have established. If your mentor wants to go above and beyond, let them make that decision. 

But don’t expect more of them than they can give and don’t expect them to branch out from their area of expertise. Set and observe boundaries. 

Mentors may be just what your startup needs to get to the next level. Understand what they do and don’t do, determine what you need, and find the right mentor team. Finally, be sure to set reasonable expectations and stick with them.