a symbiotic relationship

and November 25, 2016

Startup founders are self-made entrepreneurs, but they too need handholding, since they often tend to fall in love with their ideas. This sometimes makes them myopic. They need a sounding board to bring them face to face with the ground realities of implementing their business ideas.

The nature of advice given by mentors may not be welcoming; in fact, most often it is not something that the founders may find readily acceptable. So why do founders seek mentors? What difference do mentors make to the spirit of the ventures they nurture? Why do founders look forward to mentoring when they have technical and managerial resources and capabilities?

Mentors are external experts who can often see what founders fail to see within their own enterprises. They have a farsighted outlook towards a business plan, and the insight of looking at both the financial and non-financial aspects of innovative proposals. How does this help? Well, here are some hints answering this moot question.

  • spotting trends in the chosen space of operation: Mentors have a broad idea about how a particular domain in the startup space is taking shape. They can support the mentees by suggesting the direction for the future course of action.
  • estimating operational requirements of resources: Mentors have an advantage over startup founders—the ability to conduct a comparative analysis of where the business stands against similar players in the market. They can emphasize on the deployment of resources which may apparently be missing from estimations drawn by founders and their team members.
  • deciding on investments in physical and digital assets: It takes a lot of experience to formulate strategic moves in a volatile market. Mentors help mentees by suggesting the mix of physical versus digital investments best suited for their business. Since the financial commitment for such an investment is large, it is advisable that mentees evaluate any proposal for such investments critically well in advance.
  • preparing a backup plan: All ventures do not always have one. The business idea designed to be executed in a particular manner might not take off profitably. Hence, mentors assume the role of consultants who prepare their entrepreneurial mentees for Plan-B. In absence of a back-up plan the possibility of survival becomes very low.
  • arranging for short-term finance and working capital: The most difficult part of running a startup is that there is no assurance that the pre-defined budget can be executed as per initial expectations. The operational requirements keep changing to meet tactical requirements, and the demand for short-term funds also varies over time. Mentors, due to their vast network of funding partners, know the best sources of finance to meet such fluctuating demands of working capital.

Mentors do not interfere with the day-to-day operations of the business, and hence can see things which employees and founders fail to spot. This is a big advantage for an early-stage startup which is fighting tooth and nail to gain customers and create its brand. But mentorship is a double-edged sword, it may displease young founders who are convinced about their ideas. It might even disappoint, and possibly dislodge a concept on which founders have worked painstakingly for hundreds of hours.

This is not a relationship of superior and subordinate, it is a relationship between student and teacher. Here the mentor acts like a torchbearer for the mentee who has every right to stand up and argue against the appropriateness of the suggestions. There is no force or command, yet there is control and commitment. Mentees like to challenge their mentors but they do not intend to beat them in any form. They accept mentors as leaders, but do not fear their enigma as a boss.

So, how do mentors like to be identified as? Let us look at some of the key areas mentors focus on while they act as friend, philosopher, and guide to early-stage entrepreneurs.

  • mentors like to maintain friendly liberal demeanor: They want their mentees to ‘work with’ them and not ‘work under’ them. The very reason why mentees feel like asking for their support is because of their style of working. They do not intend to be seen as a ‘management control system’ of the startup they mentor. They define the broad areas of interest in the business right at the outset, and continue to maintain an overarching structure of supervision in a friendly manner. Mentors are those friends who are willing to show mistakes which are sometimes beyond the grasp of mentees.
  • mentors do not try to become micromanagers: Micromanagers like controlling everything that comes under their scan of work. They like people to let them know about every single action taken by them, and want to become part of every story in the organization no matter whether it results into success or failure of decisions. Mentors are just opposite in nature. They would rather remain out of the picture than being seen as a part of the decision-making process. They like to make an anonymous contribution to the startup and its founders. Their idea of management is very simple; as the business flourishes they feel happy to be associated with it.
  • mentors give suggestions, support, and direction: Well, this may sound theoretical but there are people who can suggest without expecting others to adopt any of the suggestions. They want to support without hindering the normal course of action initiated by entrepreneurs themselves. This is not being disengaged—it is about being present without making noise. Mentors never like the use of ‘force’ to get things done the way they envision them.
  • mentors like to keep things simple: They like to hear founders speaking in jargon-free language which connects with real-world business needs. The purpose of keeping this simple is to relate every fascinating business idea to the ground realities of consumer [behavior/preferences] and the market. Many mentors want their mentees to think and act as customers of their own products or services. Customers choose simple things over complicated ones. Take the classic case of Apple. For several years, Apple has been offering limited choices to its customers for all categories of products. Steve Jobs considered Andy Grove of Intel as his mentor and role model. Grove always believed in ‘creating the vision’ of what customers want and not what they have.
  • mentors do not like to take credit for things they do not do: Like all good leaders, mentors too like to share the credit of success with entrepreneurs. But they do not like to take credit for things they have not contributed to. They want the mentees to develop confidence in their actions, and therefore want them to become fully engaged and empowered. Mentoring attracts meaningfulness only when the doers are seen by preachers (read mentors) as capable and actionable people.

Mark Zuckerberg considered Steve Jobs as his mentor. Steve’s contribution towards Facebook was his strong belief in the high quality of teams which Zuckerberg was trying to nurture. He continued to guide Facebook about how to leverage potential of people for driving an innovative concept like Facebook.

Jeff Bezos of Amazon is known for running an intensive mentorship program, while he himself acts as an influential mentor for several young entrepreneurs working in the technology space. As Bezos says, “I strongly believe that missionaries make better products. They care more. For a missionary, it’s not just about the business. There has to be a business, and the business has to make sense, but that’s not why you do it. You do it because you have something meaningful that motivates you.”

Mentoring is a bit like altruism. Though one may feel it does not make any economic sense, in reality, it actually makes enough business sense. To put it in the words of Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert Simon, “The intelligent altruists, though less altruistic than the unintelligent altruists, will be fitter than both unintelligent altruists and selfish individuals.”

 

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