Entrepreneurship is like a computer game in which you have to master every level before achieving success. Startups repeatedly stumble and have to go back to the drawing board. The best way to skip some levels and to increase the odds of survival is to learn from others who have already played the game. That is the value that mentors provide and the reason why you need to start building relationships with people who can help you when you are stuck.
That is why you need to find mentors with experience in different stages of company development. Mentors will not know your technology as well as you do and may not be able to tell you what the best path to success is. But they can surely tell you what pitfalls to avoid and what to expect. You will never find a mentor who can guide you through every level of your game. That’s because technology is changing ever more rapidly and continually altering the landscape. No one has built your exact company before. The good news is, however, that the basics of building a business haven’t changed. You start with a great idea and test it with customers to figure out what they want and need. Then you build your product, and market, sell, and support it. The skills required for each of these steps is different. An understanding of the challenges that lie ahead can dramatically change your product, distribution plans, and growth strategy.
How do you find a mentor? Through family and friends, social networks, industry conferences, and networking events. There are successful entrepreneurs and business executives with strong domain knowledge all over the world.
The hard part is getting people to sign up to advise you—unless, of course, they happen to be an uncle or a family friend. The people you want to know will neither have the time nor be ready to take on the responsibility of helping your startup. You will need to find a way to persuade them to find the time and to make an investment in you.
No, I’m not talking about a financial investment. Mentors may invest money if and when it makes sense for them. But financing should not be an expectation or a prerequisite. The mentor–mentee relationship is ideally like that of the guru and disciple: motivated by the desire of the guru to impart knowledge to the disciple.
Most successful entrepreneurs share their knowledge as a way of giving back. They do not demand compensation. Those who do are usually trying to take advantage of you. Avoid them at all costs. You should however offer stock to mentors that are truly helpful so that they can share in the success that they help build.
Venture capitalists and angel investors often tout themselves as friends and mentors, but they are not. Their interest is in the money—not in you. Many will turn on you in a heartbeat if their financial investment is at stake.
So don’t confuse an investor with a mentor. What you want in a mentor is someone who truly cares for you and who will look after your interests and not just their own. When you do come across the right person to mentor you, start by showing them that the time they spend with you is worthwhile. Here is how you can do this.
• Learn about the mentor in advance so you don’t waste his or her time by asking unnecessary questions.
• Think hard about what advice he or she can give that will really be useful to you.
• Again don’t waste people’s time by asking questions you can get answered by doing Google searches or reading books. Ask intelligent and targeted questions.
• If the answers are helpful, follow the advice and tell the mentor what resulted from it. Remember that relationships are built over time and need to be win–win. Make sure that you aren’t a pest or a drain on someone’s time and energy.
I personally attribute much of my success to the great people who mentored me. In this article I focused on entrepreneurship, but the same lessons have applied to every stage of my career—from my time as a computer programmer to my entrance into academia. So I have been doing all I can to help and mentor others. These days, I no longer have the time to mentor people individually, so I try to share my knowledge by writing.
With a bit of luck, you too will find the right mentors and achieve success. When you do, remember to give back to the next generation of entrepreneurs. Do for others what your mentors did for you—or what you wished they had done.