March 3, 2015

A better mentor manifesto?

[discuss on Hacker News]

I’m a fan of Techstars, even though nobody’s perfect (no, not even YC). David Cohen, one of Techstars’ founders, has interacted with hundreds and hunders of startups, and their mentors. In his latest post, he writes his version of a “Mentor manifesto”, to answer the simple question of: What does it mean to be a great mentor?

I have a slightly different view, but I think it’s wise to build on top of what David has already written. Therefore, I will list his points, comment or elaborate on each point, and add my own.

But first, let me tell you why you should even listen to me - and my experience as a mentor.

simone-techstars My badge when I was mentoring at Techstars Cloud in San Antonio, Texas

My experience as a mentor

During the last seven years, I met over one thousand startups, while I was Technology Evangelist at Amazon Web Services and now as a Chief Technologist at VMware. I advised a few hundreds of them. Of all those, I could claim that I properly “mentored” only a few dozens. Still, it’s a good number. I mentored through incubators and accelerators (Techstars, Founder Institute, H-Farm, Mind The Bridge, among others), as well as by direct interaction. Three years ago I also became an angel investor, and started investing in a few companies. Those are, naturally, the ones that I have mentored the most. Hopefully this is enough experience to have a decent idea of what a mentor should do to help startups succeed - and of course, experience is never enough, so feel free to comment and tell me what I’m doing wrong or where I can improve.

A (hopefully) better version of a mentor manifesto

Here we go.

1) Be socratic (notes by Brad Feld here). I agree, and by “being socratic” we mean that you (the mentor) should ask the right questions, engage in the right conversation, and get a sense of how you can help the startup that you are mentoring. (I would have used a different term, since the socratic method is much more than that, and it’s not the only way to have that discussion) 2) Expect nothing in return (you’ll be delighted with what you do get back). I only partially agree. I expect that you show up on time, that you know why I’m there to help you, that you somehow respect the fact that I am dedicating my time to helping you. Other than that, yes, I don’t expect anything else. 3) Be authentic / practice what you preach. This has nothing to do with mentoring. I think this should apply to everything. Furthermore, if you are not authentic in a normal situation, you will not be authentic when you mentor. I like it, but it’s useless. 4) Be direct. Tell the truth, however hard. Fully agree. Not much to be added. 5) Listen too. Well, let’s just use #1 (be socratic). This is redundant. 6) The best mentor relationships eventually become two-way. Hmm. It’s poorly defined. Say something more specific like “A good mentor-mentee relationship includes the mentor helping the mentee, but also the mentor learn from the relationship.” 7) Be responsive. Well, agree. 8) Adopt at least one company every single year. Experience counts. Don’t necessarily agree. If you already have a vast experience, and you will only mentor one startup in your lifetime, you can still be a great mentor. I don’t think this should be in the list. 9) Clearly separate opinion from fact. Yep. 10) Hold information in confidence. Agree, and even more: most “young” startups don’t really know what can happen when certain pieces of information are leaked. Not only you have to hold information in confidence - go the extra mile: help them understand the consequences. 11) Clearly commit to mentor or do not. Either is fine. Ha. This is controversial (but I kind of agree). I expect nothing in return, right? So, let me tell you the story of a Techstars alumni from Boston (I won’t name the company here). I met them twice during the Techstars program, exchanged several emails with them, I was elected their lead mentor by them, I followed them for a few months quite closely, and provided mentoring and advice even after graduation (in specific on how to do technology evangelism). I met one of the founders in Boston months after graduation. I made several introductions. In short, I think I committed a lot of time. I didn’t expect much in return, but I got exactly nothing. They raised a big series A and then a bigger series B, and they simply forgot about me. I feel that this was unfair. I didn’t expect advisory equity or else; but simply, a couple of unexpected “thank you” would have been fantastic. So, dear startup, tell me: do you want me just for this one hour, or do you want me for more? If so, I think we should have a discussion. What do you think? 12) Know what you don’t know. Say I don’t know when you don’t know. “I don’t know” is preferable to bravado. Yes. 13) Guide, don’t control. Teams must make their own decisions. Guide but never tell them what to do. Understand that it’s their company, not yours. Yes. 14) Accept and communicate with other mentors that get involved. How? Techstars didn’t do much to facilitate this. Almost nobody helps you with this. I find it ironic that you see it in the manifesto, but it’s left to the individual mentor to figure out how to do this. I think there should be a better way. 15) Be optimistic. No. Be realistic. 16) Provide specific actionable advice, don’t be vague. Yes. 17) Be challenging/robust but never destructive. This can be incorporated into #15 “Be realistic”. 18) Have empathy. Remember that startups are hard. Yes.

And now let me add a few more from my own opinion:

19) Explain why you want to mentor them, and what’s your approach. Sometimes there are these “mentor days” where each startup meets 4-5 different mentors. They usually don’t know who they are in details (in the sense that they only know the name, the current occupation, some background, and not much else), and besides the big, famous exceptions, most of these mentors look the same on paper. So, when you meet a new startup, briefly tell them why you are there to mentor them, how you intend mentoring, etc. Possibly, even tell them what’s your goal. Examples? Looking for new opportunities; looking for good investments for my fund; looking for talent that I can lure into my other company (well, a few people do that, even if it’s not nice); looking for companies to acquire before they get too expensive; or simply to get experience in mentoring other people. 20) If you want to become a long-term mentor of the company, explain what you expect from them (equity? cash? attention? nothing?). Just make it clear. 21) Take notes, and follow up. You become a more effective mentor if you take notes on each company you meet, and then follow up on these notes. It’s actually good to write down your after thoughts, and share these with them. I rarely did it when I started, but then I discovered how useful it is. I also don’t do it with everybody, because I prefer to focus on the few selected ones that I like to mentor. Also, taking notes is useful if you want to mentor them on a specific aspect for the long term. Example: if I want to help a company do technology evangelism right, our first meeting might not go well because maybe they have a different view. I take notes, and after a month or two I check in and see how it went. If I was right, I should be able to point the mistake and help them steer the ship in the right direction. 22) Ask them to explain how they feel about your mentoring. Do mentor ever do this? Rarely! And yet, it’s also a very important way to understand if you have been of help AT ALL, and perhaps in which areas you should improve. 23) Prepare in advance. At your first meeting this is especially important. Make sure that you know enough about the company, and possibly that you have already reached out to them, telling them who you are, what you do, and your areas of expertise. I am not very good at doing this, but I am improving. It’s also good, prior to any meeting, to set an agenda and decide what you want to discuss. Most of the time, the first meeting is to get to know each other and see if some “magic” happens, but why not use it to try to discuss and solve a specific problem that the startup is going through now? 24) Provide feedback to the incubator/accelerator (if applicable). Yes. A good mentor not only is a good mentor for the individual startup, but he/she also provides specific feedback to Techstars, or any other incubator/accelerator. His interaction with the startups might have been better. The notes on them might have been more detailed. Or, the presentation decks should all be available as a single zip file. Etc.

That’s it for now. What do you think?

[discuss on Hacker News]