It is a perilous journey for an entrepreneur, especially for the inexperienced. There are no straightforward ways of building a business, as dynamics changes very often in a complex business environment.
I know this, as I too was a young inexperienced startup founder 19 years ago, during the early dot-com era. Whatever I tried applying what I learnt in business school always fall short of success. I failed to understand the nuances of running a business.
Unfortunately, schools only teach the science of business, but fail to talk about the art of business, from culture, negotiations, hiring or real-life understanding of how businesses actually work.
The need for startup mentors to boost your entrepreneurial journey
It is without a doubt that any entrepreneur should and must find mentors in their journey. This is to help fill up the necessary gaps, offer a different perspective and provide impartation of business lessons so that you will not be doomed to repeat history.
I was blessed to have 5 mentors in my startup life. They imparted to me intangible skills, knowledge and values that now remain part of me as I run my businesses and venture fund.
But while saying this, I had the unfortunate experiences of having others who claimed to be ‘mentors’ but ended up taking advantage of my relationship with them. I also found similar experiences faced by entrepreneurs where that their startup mentors were falling short in a few aspects.
From the feedback I have collected and from personal experiences, here are some ground rules of what you should expect to have in a startup mentor, and reconsider the relationship if he falls short.
A startup mentor guides, not dictate, how you run your company
A mentor has no executive power or any involvement in your startup. It is a third-party who uses his experience and knowledge to provide suggestions and direction to the entrepreneur.
I recalled having a mentor who was a driven man but forgot that he doesn’t own my company. In his sessions, I found him dictating and telling me what actions I must do, otherwise, he would not continue mentoring me. I ditched him. Down the road, I found out he was manoeuvring me with the intent to get me to offer him shares and claiming he did the work to build my company.
Only you, the entrepreneur, should make your own final decisions, in particular to the early stages of startup development. The moment you find your mentor coercing or making decisions for you, it is time to rethink the relationship.
2. A startup mentor is not paid, so reject those who want compensation
This is the utmost principle of being a mentor, is that he wants to give back to society by helping others freely.
This only changes if the job role has changed to a commercial nature, for example, you are engaging your mentor to do some consultancy work. If it changes to that, ensure you have a contractual agreement. It is also a reconsider to find others to be your mentor.
So, do not offer sweat equity or payment for the mentorship. The dynamics changes. No matter how grateful you are, never bring up the topic of remuneration. Rather, pay-it-forward and help others, because that what your mentor was doing.
A startup mentor isn’t just a friend, but focuses on you objectively
A startup mentor is not just a person whom you banter and gossip with, but a person whom you account to on your startup progress. A mentor is objective-driven, to see ways which you can grow your business.
As a mentor myself, I usually set objectives for the session and end off with a summary of follow-up actions that the entrepreneur needs to work on. Only in this way can you see the value in mentorship.
A startup mentor listens and stops his humblebrag
One entrepreneur shared with me his personal experience meeting a particular mentor, who spent more time boasting about his accolades and achievements, without even trying to listen to his needs.
Effective mentors are those who listen intently to the entrepreneur to gather sufficient understanding. From there, he uses his prior experiences to guide and impart lessons to the entrepreneur.
If you have a windbag for a mentor, your time is better spent elsewhere finding others.
5. A startup mentor goes beyond business and understands you as a person
Every entrepreneur is unique, with her own quirks, character, strengths and weaknesses. Businesses can be somewhat similar in nature, but not entrepreneurs.
Effective mentors are those who take the trouble to understand you, and where your dreams and goals are. This is important so that they can offer suggestions that are suited towards your character, rather than leading you down a road you feel uncomfortable about.
To me, the best mentors are those who care for you deeply, as they are like a parent to you. Because those are the ones who provide you with the encouragement when you are down. I personally do that to my startup mentees, because when they succeed, I gain the satisfaction that my mentoring produced value.
A startup mentor keeps information confidential and not abuse it
A relationship between mentor and entrepreneur is a privileged one. Information has to be kept in utmost confidence. Even terms sheets and negotiations which are deemed sensitive should never be shared, and more importantly, not lead to exploitation or blackmail.
Abusing the trust is likened to that of a breach of doctor-patient confidentiality. I always advise entrepreneurs to take the time to get to know the mentor first before entrusting him with too much confidential information.
As I end this article, finding a great startup mentor with relevant experience and one who also cares for you to see you succeed without strings attached is a challenge. But then again, it is worth seeking out the right one to walk with you on your journey.
This article first appeared on e27.
This is part of the “Startup Advisories” series, where I share pertinent issues faced by startup entrepreneurs. The NEXT50.sg initiative is a pro-bono network of startup mentors who support Singaporean entrepreneurs in their startup journey.