Inside the Accelerator: Finding the Right Mentor

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One of the biggest assets of any startup accelerator program is its mentors. These are the business leaders and industry experts who give their time and make connections to help early stage startups. For the accelerator program, this is what makes an $18,000 cash investment feel more like $100,000 (which makes giving up a 6% equity stake a lot more palatable for startups, especially those in a later stage of development). How well an accelerator program recruits, allocates, and manages its mentor pool is a sign of its effectiveness in advancing successful startups.

How an Accelerator Program Helps

Easier access to high quality mentors is one of the main reasons startup founders cite when they explain why they participated in an accelerator program. The reality is that all startups (whether they participate in an accelerator program or not) need help from experts in their field. If a startup does not participate in an accelerator program, then they must forge all of their mentoring relationships on their own. This can be a daunting task because the people who are most qualified to mentor are usually too busy doing the work that makes them a great mentor for your company. And if you are a young startup founder, you may not have direct connections with these more high-powered folks.

Unless they understand the community building opportunity of helping startup companies, most business leaders and industry experts shy away from requests for mentorship. Their schedules and lives are already booked solid. That's where an accelerator program can help, because it's a community benefit. And there is some caché with being associated with the entrepreneurial ecosystem... at least there is in Kansas City! 

What Makes a High Quality Mentor?

Some accelerator programs taut their "celebrity" mentors as a way to attract applicants, but what really matters is whether the program has mentors with relevant experience and expertise that serves a need for each of the startups in the current class. A mentor is only as great as the feedback s/he gives and the connections s/he can make on a startup's behalf. So, you may be surprised at the value of many of the mentors that aren't so focused on being in the spot light.

How It Works at SparkLabKC

At SparkLabKC, we have cultivated more than 80 mentor relationships over the last three years. We have serial entrepreneurs, Fortune 1000 executives, seasoned startup founders, leaders of startup support organizations, and the top service providers (e.g., lawyers, accountants, web development) in our region that focus on startups. During the first week of our program, the SparkLabKC founders cull through our list of mentors and make recommendations to the new class of startups. Usually 15 to 20 potential mentors are identified for each company, and then the teams narrow the list based on their needs. Over the course of the next month or two, meetings are set up and the heavy lifting begins.

There are times when our companies report being "mentored to death," especially during the first five or six weeks. Many go from meeting to meeting — it can be exhausting to take in all that feedback. 

They sometimes get conflicting advice and feel a bit whipsawed. However, this is all part of the method to the madness. Conflicting advice makes startup founders dig deep to really discover how they feel about an issue in their business or a direction they need to take. When they go against the advice of a mentor, they really need to think it through and have conviction on why they are right to chose this course. 

An Unexpected Benefit

One of the best outcomes of having 15 mentor meetings in a row is the opportunity to pitch (or explain) their business over and over again. It is an immediate feedback loop that tells a startup founder if s/he is getting the full message across or not. The SparkLabKC teams are drilled in their 30 second elevator speech throughout the program by our mentors and at each of our weekly dinners with mentors and investors. It is great prep for Demo Day!

What To Look For In A Mentor

The reality is that not every mentor is going to be a great mentor for a startup. There are some best practices that will help teams make the best choices and avoid wasting time with someone who can't really help their business advance. Lisa Nicole Bell, in an article for Startup American, Partnership offers three great tips on how to know if someone is a great mentor. 

  1. Meaningful accomplishment in your current or future field. Experience is an excellent teacher, especially when it’s earned by someone else. Find a mentor who has successfully navigated a field that interests you. They don’t necessarily have to be the richest, most famous, or most prolific — they simply need to be further along than you in some way. Explore their accomplishments and personal brand in addition to their current endeavors. Use your findings as a measuring stick.
  2. Pure motives for mentorship. A prospective mentor needs to have pure motives for choosing to mentor you. An inflated ego, a chaotic lifestyle or an opportunistic attitude can get in the way of your learning and growth. Find someone who legitimately wants to see you grow and succeed.
  3. Mental and physical space for mentorship. Even with the best intentions, some prospective mentors simply don’t have the time, space or focus to effectively offer guidance. Sometimes they’ll agree to the arrangement without actually delivering on the promise. Besides being a waste of time, chasing a mentor can be humiliating and exhausting. Save yourself the headache and choose someone who can honor the commitment.

How To Be A Great Mentee

There is nothing that pisses me off more than when a startup company is introduced to a mentor, take their time, benefit from their experience, and then don't have the courtesy to say thank you. Mentoring is a two way street, not just a give (from the mentor) and a take (from the mentee). It is a relationship that can last for many years if treated properly and with great respect. After the first meeting, responding with a simple thank you (even if it's just an email) goes a long way towards bolstering the relationship. When startup founders benefit the mentor's business and look for opportunities to help the mentor, that's when these relationships get really rich. 

Question: What traits, skills or connections make a great mentor for your startup? Let us know your thoughts by commenting or tweeting @SparkLabKC