Is Your Baby Ugly? How to Leverage Mentors to Help Your Startup Succeed


Most 90-day startup accelerators publicize their lineup of mentors as one of the most valuable parts of their program. It doesn’t matter if it's Techstars, Y-Combinator, 500 Startups, The Brandery, DreamIt Ventures, or SparkLaKC — we all have built our programs on our mentor base. 

Why? Because mentorship works. When companies can survive describing and defending their business idea 40 times in 4 weeks and still want to keep going, they know they’ve got something worth building.

The idea behind the mentoring concept is that startup founders need a lot of advice in a short amount of time if they want to build something that is scalable, not to mention presentable on Demo Day. By tapping into a carefully cultivated mentor pool, startups gain a huge advantage over entrepreneurs without access to mentors as a resource. Our startup founders get the benefit of a variety of feedback (some of it contradictory) and exposure to a powerful group of successful and experienced people.  

Are You Ready for Mentoring?

Sound great? It is - but only if your startup is really ready for mentorship. At SparkLabKC, we’ve seen a range of receptivity to the advice of mentors. Companies that join an accelerator program and think they know it all rarely emerge as successful companies. Those that join because they're actively seeking input and advice are much more likely to succeed. Your “coachability” is determined in those mentor meetings, and those who are more coachable usually do better than those that are not.

You may think you are open to advice and counsel on your brilliant idea, but having someone give you real, hardcore feedback can be tough to take. More often than not mentors are going to tell you what is WRONG with your idea rather than what is RIGHT with it. It’s their job to rip and shred your idea and all your misconceptions about your market, not pat you on the back and butter you up. A good mentor will see what works and leave it alone, focusing their attention on what doesn't. However, a great mentor also knows how to deliver the news that “your baby is ugly” in a way that allows you to actually hear it and then do something about it.  

Quality of Mentors

At SparkLabKC, we have cultivated relationships with more than 100 individuals who are experts across many industries, technology platforms, and disciplines to help each of our companies. Many are successful entrepreneurs who have paved the way for the new generation. Others are highly effective executives with deep connections to capital and a startups’ target market.  

During the first week of the SparkLabKC program, I meet with our entrepreneurs and assess their needs. Then, we build a list of 15 to 30 mentors together that their company will meet with over the next month.

The Experience of Mentoring

Those few weeks of mentor meetings can feel like being “mentored to death.” In fact, many of our startup founders have two or three mentor meetings a day for weeks in a row. It may seem overly time consuming, but there is method to the madness. Most companies come into the mentoring sessions with a less than clear idea of the what, why, and how of what they do. Most emerge from that month of mentoring with a much clearer picture of their business, target market, potential stumbling blocks, and significant opportunities. In many cases, the mentoring meetings result in a shift or pivot of the idea. Without exception, the startup teams who engage and actively listen with open minds come away with a much stronger product at the end of this process.

If you are considering applying for the 2015 SparkLabKC class, ask yourself if you are ready to have someone dissect the good, bad, and ugly of your idea. A thick skin and a willingness to listen to ALL the feedback are key to success in the startup ecosystem.

Finally, your relationship with your mentors is what you make of it. Take it seriously and cultivate those relationships and both sides will benefit. Take it lightly, or listen without hearing, and you’ll get just what you're asking for -- not much help.