Why Mentorship Matters for Startup Founders
Guest post by Meaghan Casey, Global Startup Partner Manager, AWS
Finding the right mentors at the right time is key to building a successful career. Mentors provide advice, feedback, coaching, and introductions that can take your career to the next level. If you are a founder, the stakes multiply because finding the right mentors can mean not only your individual success, but the difference between your startup scaling or failing. In a 2003-2013 survey of NYC tech firms, founders mentored by successful entrepreneurs became top performers in acquisition outcomes, investor traction, and/or internal scale at a 3x higher rate than their peers [TechCrunch]. Experienced startup founders recruit and retain great mentors because it increases their startup’s odds of succeeding in the long-term. In my career as the former-CEO of a co-working space, innovation lab, and incubator for startups, I found amazing mentors. I also had the opportunity to pay it forward by mentoring over 40 early-stage startup founders. Along the way, I learned a few tips and tricks about how startup founders can find mentors and maximize these relationships.
How Does Mentorship Benefit Your Business?
Great mentorship is valuable to startup founders in three ways.
- Mentors help you focus. Because they aren’t involved in the tedious day-to-day work of the business, mentors see the bigger picture. When I mentored the founder of an agtech startup, he was spreading his strapped startup too thinly across multiple customer types. We discussed each customer, product, and profit margin, and we realized that his startup was actually losing money when it sold to certain customers. Although the conversation was not easy, he left our meeting re-focused on his primary customer. Within months, he saw a lift in customer referrals and overall profitability. A great mentor believes in the founder’s bold vision but also asks the tough questions to help founders experiment, solicit feedback, quantify results, and navigate challenging business decisions.
- Mentors share specialized information. Mentors are experienced as industry experts (e.g., healthcare, finance, retail, or energy) or subject matter experts (e.g., marketing, HR, sales, or business operations). A great mentor complements the founder’s weakest areas, rounding out the types of expertise the founder and the startup can access.
- Mentors provide long-term support. A great mentor sticks with you. A few years back, I led a three-month accelerator for 25 female founders to develop their ideas into viable early-stage businesses in 90 days. Each entrepreneur was paired with a successful business woman whom they met with weekly. One year later, the most successful entrepreneurs were those who continued to meet with their mentors, even after the program ended. As your business evolves, a great mentor sticks with you for as long as you need her.
What Makes a Great Mentor-Mentee Relationship
Great mentorship relationships take intention, investment, and time. Follow these tips to establish a great mentor relationship from the start.
- Be willing to be vulnerable. Founders, especially first-time leaders or technical experts, may not think they need mentors. It’s not easy to admit you don’t know everything. When I look back at a time I was brought in as CEO to turn around a challenging team at a startup, I quickly became so busy trying to stay afloat that I didn’t reach out for help. I didn’t want to risk the vulnerability of admitting that I was facing challenges. Finally, I sought help from an experienced business contact, and I’m so thankful I did. With his guidance and support, I made tough staffing decisions that led to a breakthrough.
- Give and get. For a mentorship relationship to last, you have to set it up as mutually beneficial from the start. I mentored an early-stage founder of an edtech startup, and I woke up energized to meet each time we had a session. I shared my expertise in creating business models, value propositions, and pitching 101 and was inspired (reward enough for many mentors!) to see how quickly the startup raised funds and established partnerships to quickly put its virtual textbooks into the hands of more students. The startup’s success also benefitted our co-working space as it brought in more edtech nonprofits and community members. In the long run, great mentoring relationships result in personal and professional benefits for both sides.
- Set expectations upfront. Mentors are typically experienced professionals and are volunteering their valuable time to mentor founders. So it’s important that founders use a mentor’s time wisely. In my experience, one of my mentors was only available a few minutes each month to address a very specific subject (e.g., changes to industry trends), whereas another mentor made herself available for long, strategic discussions. Start off on the right foot by setting norms on time, topic, and outcome expectations at the beginning of the relationship and at the start of each meeting so you both use your valuable time wisely.
How to Get Started
Here are 3 steps you can take to build your network of mentors.
- Self-Reflect. Before you reach out, take stock of your strengths and weakness as a founder. Where is your business facing challenges or opportunities? Where are your gaps? Where do you need to learn something new? What’s needed to take your business to the next growth stage?
- Find the right mentors. Ask your inner circle for recommendations or introductions. If you are an industry expert but have never led a sales team, ask for an introduction to the best sales leader in your network. Knowing your own shortcomings and then making specific asks to your network is a sound approach to finding a great mentor.
- Scale with a system. Just like any new habit, it takes time and effort to keep up the mentorship relationship. Consider creating a board of mentors to give yourself structure, name each mentor’s superpower and his or her time availability for regular syncs. A diverse board of mentors will equip your startup with a network of support that can lead to customer introductions, funding, new talent, and a knowledge bank for your business in good times and downturns.
Most founders will agree that finding and cultivating the right mentorship relationships takes work. But it’s worth it. Mentors will challenge you and your business, increasing your startup’s chances of success. In the process, your mentors will teach out new skills, ways of thinking, and mental models for decision-making that will serve you and your startup for years to come.
This April, AWS and Startup Grind are celebrating all things mentorship. The Startup Grind organization is dedicated to educating a global community of early stage entrepreneurs in 600 cities and 125 countries worldwide through regular local events, an online community, and regional conferences.
Throughout the month of April, AWS will be hosting virtual events to discuss the importance of mentors and the value that mentorship plays in life and work. Check out the full list of events and join us for the discussion!