7 things I look at when deciding which startups to mentor
And what should be your takeaways from it when you are asking someone to be your mentor.
I like mentoring and advising startups and entrepreneurs. If I have got an opening in my schedule, it can be yours — and the beers are on me.
Why? Multiple reasons.
First of all, it helps me meet new entrepreneurs — ones with unending passion and zeal to do something that can add value to their consumers. This helps me learn a thing or two every few weeks. Their experiences, their hardships, their successes and their roadblocks — they all end up teaching me a few things.
Second, it is a way for me to give back to the startup community. Helping others out, whenever and wherever possible, with whatever I have learnt over these years — either via the hours I put in at different startups I have worked with or by working with some truly brilliant entrepreneurs and businessmen.
Third, a lot of experience and learning comes from making mistakes. The fact that I think I have learnt a fair share of things should tell you that the mistakes I would have made are also countless. If I can help someone avoid those mistakes in time, and save them a lot of time, money, energy and heartache — that is something I would love to do.
So, what makes me want to (or agree to) take on that position?
First of all, what needs to be clarified is what and who is a mentor, or an advisor. He is not a guru, he is not a coach, he is most certainly not the one who knows your business better than you do.
A mentor is a tool, not much different from the equipment you get from your local Walmart for your rock climbing expedition over the weekend. He certainly helps you out in your activity, makes it bit easier, and at times even show you a better way. But it would still always be YOU who is climbing the rocks.
Now that we have that clarified, let us look at the items on my checklist I go through before I agree to being a mentor to some startup I bump into.
#1. CAN I HELP?
I am a business guy. I can help you with business strategy, marketing plans and roadmap, and to some extent on sales. If your biggest challenge at the time is tech, then I am not the right guy for you. I know people who are maybe good at that sort of stuff, but I won’t even be able to say that with 100% conviction since there is no way for me to know for sure what their expertise is, how good are they at what they do, how good would they be at helping someone. I just don’t know. I would connect you with people I think may be able to help, but beyond that, you will need to take a call.
Similarly, there are business areas I don’t know as well as I may have liked to — if I was planning on getting into that space. So, it would be unfair of me to even try to position myself as a mentor there. For example, cryptocurrency. Nope. I know of it, but I don’t think I’ll be able to even talk about it for ten minutes. Have just never tried to understand the industry. So, areas like that would be off limits.
#2. HOW MUCH CAN I HELP
Would I be able to add value temporarily to their business or do I see myself in a position where I can keep on helping them out as their business grows, evolves and matures.
If the help I can offer is temporary and would not take a lot of my time and bandwidth, then I would just help them out — without having the expectations of being a mentor or advisor or any compensation for it. As I should.
(Ideally, it would not have been wrong of me to expect some compensation for the temporary value I am adding to their business. But you have to understand that a good percentage of these entrepreneurs reaching out are in fairly early stages of their businesses; and I think their money would be better spent elsewhere.)
#3. SHOULD I HELP
Every once in a while you will come across a business or an entrepreneur where you just don’t gel. Don’t get me wrong. I am sure the business is great and the founders are amazing people — but if you don’t have similar wavelength, or share some sort of chemistry, it would be a pretty excruciating process for all parties involved to try working together. No matter in what limited capacity.
The reasons are plenty. It is possible that their approach to business just differs from the way you look at things. It is possible that they are too optimistic about their product, or maybe you are just too negative. Hard to say. There could be so many different reasons why the two of you don’t click. And if we don’t, then I wouldn’t try to force it on myself.
I would hear them out, offer my inputs wherever they are looking for it, and make any and all connections that I feel maybe relevant to both parties. And then I call it a day.
#4. HOW SERIOUS ARE THEY ABOUT THEIR WORK
It is important to me. Very very important. I don’t charge for my time; and that is the most valuable commodity I have. If I invest in a business today and end up losing it, I can still make more money. But every single second of my life that I let slip away is gone for good. So, if I get the vibe that the entrepreneurs are just acting on some whims, or experimenting with stuff, or don’t really have their hearts into it — that’s my cue to buy them a drink, thank them for their time and their patience with my questions and probing, and then, I walk away.
#5. THE TRACTION AND THE KIND OF TRACTION THEY HAVE
Does the startup have any traction, what kind of traction is it?
- Do they just have registered users or do they have transacting users
- If they have transacting users — how frequent are the transactions, what is the average ticket size, what is the expected LTV, what is the CAC
- If they don’t have transacting users, what kind of registered userbase do they have vis-a-vis the product they have
- If they have built up a community, what kind of engagement are they seeing
These factors show a lot of different things:
- Shows propensity of transactions in future
- Displays the ability to connect with the targeted userbase; thereby displaying the acceptance of the proposed product amongst the target base
and so on and so forth…
#6. THE THINGS THEY ARE DOING RIGHT, AND THE ONES THEY ARE DOING WRONG
There are a lot of things that go right with a business, but at the same time there are a lot of things that would go wrong with a business. And both of them are equally important. As a matter of fact, for an early stage startup, things that can and will go wrong matter more. Because that will show how they deal with those hurdles.
#7. HOW AMBITIOUS THEY ARE, AND ALSO HOW MUCH OF A REALIST
Loosely speaking, these are some of the parameters I consider when I am considering being a mentor to a startup. Different people may have their own sets of parameters. This works for me; something else may work for someone else.
So, what do you (as an entrepreneur) need to keep in mind, when you ask someone to come onboard as a mentor?
- If someone asks you for a piece of your company (or worse, money) at the very beginning of your conversation — run fast, and run far. Every week I connect at least 10 folks to each other because I feel that they may be able to help each other out. That’s not me helping anyone; that’s just the very first rule of networking. Being of help to others without any hidden agenda. Similarly, if all I am doing is giving you general ‘gyaan’ or worse, just nitpicking on any idea of yours — you will find such people everywhere. Why should you dole out even the tiniest bit of your company to them?
- Value their time. I can’t stress it enough — time is the most valuable commodity. So if you are reaching out to someone, value their time. Don’t be late to meetings, don’t miss deadlines etc. When you send them emails, be crisp and clear in your communication. Very simple, but very crucial rules. Also value yours. If you feel they are not valuing your time, cut them loose, and move on.
- Accept that you may need to offer them equity. Advice comes cheap; free actually. But if you want someone to be by your side every step of the way, you will need to compensate them for their time, effort and expertise in one way or another. It can either be cash or a small piece of your company — but there will need to be something. For example, if someone needs to pick my brains over a few meetings, that’s cool. But if a continued involvement is required, I do take equity in the company. There are no free lunches, always remember that.
- Research them well. There is no point in asking someone for help on something that is not at all related to them. For example, bitcoin and I — we just don’t go hand in hand. So if you call for a meeting, and then talk about a cryptocurrency, all you are going to get out of that meeting would be free beer.
- Be yourself. Anyone who is qualified enough to be a mentor would be able to spot a fake a mile away. If not in the first interaction, you would certainly not be able to fool him in the long run. And then, he will turn you away. Be honest, be sincere. Don’t compromise on your integrity.
I won’t say your business needs a mentor, but having one certainly helps. But don’t get a mentor for the sake of getting one. Get one that you enjoy sharing this journey with, and one that can help you take your business from nice to amazing!