9 Rules for Being an Effective Mentor

"Do, or do not. There is no try."
photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/xtyler/

In my experience, having effective, talented, and knowledgeable mentors has been the most powerful startup accelerator that I know. The best mentors I’ve worked with do a lot of the things on this list. You can call these the 9 rules of being a mentor – they will help you provide feedback to entrepreneurs you know and respect. These are not meant to be a definitive list (you should make your own list of things that work) and will get you started toward the process of sharing your expertise with a startup team.

Rule #1: Use your Superpower (and know what it is)

Maybe you are amazing at Operations. Perhaps you understand Finance better than anyone you know. Or you can design an email marketing campaign to ensure the highest percentage of opened emails. You know your superpower (or you should) – and you can be a really effective mentor if you can leverage your experience in a way that doesn’t say “do this, or else” to the entrepreneur you’re advising.

Rule #2: Be Mindful of Limited Time

You are busy; the entrepreneurs are busy too. So show up on time, whether it’s an in person meeting or a phone call. Give people information to review before the meeting. And answer any questions promptly so that you can give the best impression possible to a budding entrepreneur about how you can do things the right way. (Bonus points awarded if you thank them for emailing you and demonstrate a great customer service affect.)

Rule #3: Give to Get

This mentoring relationship is not about you: it’s about what you can provide to a person trying to do a very difficult thing. If you do nothing else with your mentoring relationship, you should be focusing on what the other person says that they need (and listening for the unspoken, unmet needs as well.) You can also use the power of your networks to spread the word and really amplify the efforts of a fledgling business.

Rule #4: Make Introductions and Provide Context

I’m sure you’ve received more than a few emails or requests in your time where you read the email and are not sure why the person is contacting you and how they would like you to help. Providing context makes things better for you, the entrepreneurs, and anyone else they are working with. For example, “This is ____, he/she is solving this problem ____ for this customer ___ . It would be great if you could (clearly defined ask) by (clearly defined date.) If this doesn’t work for you, please suggest another resource who might be able to help.” is a short, focused way to request assistance. You may also need to do a “pre-ask” and make sure the resource is willing and able to help.

Rule #5: Build a Community of Mentors

A community is only as effective as its members, and the totality of the network provides the relationships and ideas that make the network really thrive and grow in value. Please meet the other Mentors, the other startups, and be open to the idea that you are always learning. You never know what a day will bring when you’re open to new opportunities.

Rule #6: Only Offer What You can Deliver

The relationship with your startup company will be better if you set ground rules for how you can be contacted, what you can offer, and what you’re expecting to give. (You might ask the same questions of them.) Setting these expectations up front will avoid disappointment and will make it clear what sort of communication cadence you need to build.

Rule #7: Make “Checking In” into a Habit

Set up a regular meeting with your team – either in person or on Skype – and encourage the entrepreneurs to drive the meeting using a well-defined agenda. A great start to an agenda (use your own best one) is “what I did, what I’m doing, and where I need help.” Sending answers to the same set of questions is also a great way for teams to inform their mentors – a tool like iDoneThis or 15Five or a shared Google Doc can do the trick here.

Rule #8: It’s Not Your Startup

Building a relationship with a set of entrepreneurs is exciting, and sometimes develops into a lifelong relationship. And remember that you are there to provide advice, to help frame decisions, and to be correct when someone asks you a specific question. But it’s not your startup. Remembering that fact makes it easier for you to deliver difficult and important advice, and it also frees the entrepreneurs to ignore your advice when they need to make their own way.

Rule #9: Ask the Right Questions

In best Steve Blank form, encourage your teams to “Get Out of the Building” and validate their assumptions with real customers as soon as possible. You can help them build their hypotheses by asking incisive questions, but ensure they make key decisions based on the customer insights they uncover during customer validation.

Are these the same rules I would have written when I first joined a startup? Nope. So remind yourself that your own personal rules for serving as a mentor (and for being mentored) will change over time. Your job as a mentor should be to focus on creating, communicating, and delivering unique value for the startup you’re mentoring, and to help them do the same for their customers.

When sending startup swag, the details matter.

@Vizify delivers an awesome t-shirt. Well played.
@Vizify delivers an awesome t-shirt. Well played.

Many startups send T-Shirts to their supporters – it’s an easy and relatively inexpensive way to build brand awareness, thank friends, and to say “thank you” for trying our a product that’s in the process of achieving product-market fit. In my experience, the act of sending out a t-shirt (or anything at all) also speaks words about the team’s ability to execute tasks. If they can send out a beautiful swag pack, they are able to think about and deliver experiences beyond the web page.

I love this package from the Vizify team (a 2011 Techstars grad, which is how I met them.) There was something unusual about this package – a custom designed hang tag attached to the t-shirt – and I haven’t seen this level of detail completed by a startup in the past. Take a look at it. It’s stylish, clever, and emotionally powerful.

Design matters, even on a t-shirt tag.
Design matters, even on a t-shirt tag.

This tag speaks a thousand words about the pride the Vizify team have in their product and in the design language they are building to create amazing web experiences. The package the team sent me stood out immediately because it was carefully packaged, had a hand-written note, and featured this well-designed tag attached to the t-shirt. And there’s one more thing – the team also sent some locally made tea from Portland – reminding me that this is a Pacific Northwest startup that takes pride in its location and roots.

Sending out a T-Shirt may seem like a thankless task or a “checkbox”, but it’s one of the best ways to prove that you care about the customer and can extend the experience beyond a web application. So thanks to the Vizify team – I loved the swag pack and especially the way that you delivered it. And if you haven’t tried out their product, please do so – it’s a winner.

Success is getting one person to believe in you

Ray Ozzie appeared out of the Seattle mist today to share a very important lesson of startups and of business in general. He shared the story of how Lotus Notes started – and it sounded a lot like other stories I’ve heard about successful startups – at one moment they were hanging by a thread, and depended upon an idea and some money to bring their visions to life. They succeeded because of a relentless focus on customers, usability, and revenue.

All of the 10 companies introduced by the Techstars program have the chance to be as big (or bigger than) Lotus Notes. And only some of them will succeed. But the opportunity to build a big company is intoxicating – that was the promise today at TechStars Demo Day. Here’s one of the companies I particularly liked, Apptentive – they focus on a key problem to help in-app mobile customers build a relationship with the app provider. (I also really like Tred, Glider, and Linksy.)

And the first step (getting investors to believe in you) is going to be closely followed by the “trough of misplaced expectations”, where the shiny presentations of TechStars are going to be met by actual customers. Just like companies are looking for investors to believe in the team, these nascent companies are looking for customers that believe in them … And to use them. Continue reading “Success is getting one person to believe in you”

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