Advice For Working With Mentors

I had a great week last week.  Most of the companies I’m an investor in are doing well and are having strong Q2s.  A few, like Zynga, are absolutely killing it (see the Zynga video on CBS News titled SF-Based Startup Thriving, Hiring In Down Economy.) As one might expect, I’ve got a few companies that are struggling, but that’s the nature of the beast and I’m really proud of all the folks in those companies as they work their butts off to get to a happy place.

I was on the east coast for part of the week at TechStars Boston and the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute.  I spent time with each of the TechStars Boston teams as well as all of the software teams at YEI.  I had a great time at both and was particularly impressed by three of the YEI companies – YouRenew, Cube Knowledge, and The Green Bride Guide.

This was my first intense set of time with the TechStars Boston companies.  They are three weeks into the program and I am super excited with most of their progress.  As TechStars is a mentor-driven program, I heard a lot about various mentor engagement from the teams, along with who their favorite mentors were, the kind of advice they were getting, and how they were dealing with conflicting advice.  After spending time with each of the teams, I noticed some patterns and thought I’d synthesize them into a few pieces of advice.  This advice applies to any first time entrepreneur who is interacting with mentors, but is especially aimed at those in programs that have organized mentor activity such as YEI, fbFund Rev, and DreamIT Ventures, all programs that I’m spending time with this summer besides TechStars.

After three weeks, decide who your lead mentors are: While you will likely have more than three mentors that are working with you, by the end of the third week you’ll be able to determine who is the most engaged and will help you the most.  While you might think you could handle “as many as you can have access to”, focusing the majority of your energy on around three will be more than adequate.  This doesn’t mean that you should blow off the other mentors – you should engage with as many as you can.  But realize that there will be two categories of mentors in your world – those that become an extended part of your team and those that are fans and help you when they can.

Don’t get whiplashed by conflicting advice: By definition you are going to get conflicting advice.  Your job is to listen, ask questions, synthesize it, and make decisions.  If you take Monday’s feedback, implement it, hear different feedback from a different mentor on Wednesday, try to change direction, and get different advice from a third mentor on Friday, you can find yourself chasing your tail.  Be deliberate in collecting information, checking for other mentors reaction to feedback, decide a path, and then hit it hard.

Close the loop with your mentors: At the minimum, communicate with all of the mentors you are working with (not just the lead mentors) at least once a week.  Make sure they know the decisions you’ve made and why, especially if they contradict some of the feedback you have been getting.  Most mentors don’t need to “be right”, but they do appreciate being listened to.

Divide and conquer: Not everyone in the company needs to go to every meeting with every mentor.  While it’s probably useful for everyone to meet with the lead mentors, a key skill to learn as a team is how to divide up responsibilities and interactions, especially between “development” and “business”.  For example, on a team of three (two developers, one business person), consider having the business person meet with the mentors while the devs stay heads down and code.  Then, have a daily meeting as a team to discuss any new things that have come up from the mentors – limit this meeting to a fixed amount of time (say, 30 minutes).  This will be massively more efficient, will help you learn how to communicate between yourselves, and will enable the devs to actually get some code written.

Be proactive: It’s your job to engage the mentors.  They are there for you.  If you wait for them to come to you, you’ll get a fraction of the value you could get by going to them.

I’ve got plenty more where these came from, but they are the ones that jumped to the top of the list after reflecting on my week.  I hope they are helpful.