The Indo-African perspective on the role of mentors in your startup
Over the weekend, I was a guest of Baljinder Sharma, a serial entrepreneur and a highly respected individual in the India & Africa startup scene. He put together the first India Africa Entrepreneurship & Investment Summit in Mauritius.
The event started as an idea to create a bridge between two ecosystems that houses over 1/3rd of the world’s population. It culminated in a 2-day event attended by over two hundred illustrious participants of the African & Indian early-stage ecosystem.
The number of close relationships forged at the event is the barometer of success for such an event. On that scale alone – this event was a resounding success. I made several new friends, some from India and many from Africa. I will strongly encourage Baljinder to make the event a permanent annual feature for both ecosystems.
On the first day of the event, I was on a panel with an impressive list of panelists viz, Stephen Newton, Jonathan Mazumdar, Eric Osiakwan. Atim Kabra deftly and expertly moderated the panel channelizing our experiences and energy into a coherent narrative. Our discussion topic – the role of mentors and incubators in our respective ecosystems. Our discussion on mentorship got extremely engaging so much so that we did not enter into any meaningful conversation on incubation.
My co-panelists came up with a host of discussion points, but we unanimously agreed that the title of “the mentor” was thrown around very casually in our respective ecosystems. Often, service providers are self-anointed mentors, and their misrepresentation can have disastrous effects for the founders, their startups, and their investors.
On Sunday night as I boarded the flight back to Mumbai, I put down those discussion points that resonated with me; here is that list.
A mentor should not cost the company money.
This point is not to say that the mentor should work pro-bono. However, mentors that offer hourly/weekly/monthly/annual payment plans are service providers. If your proposed mentor charges money to meet you for an evaluation – please be smart and avoid them.
A mentor’s role is to guide, not to become the founder.
I have committed this mistake a few times, so it hits home. Many times, founders start abdicating the decision-making role to the mentor, and there are several times the mentor starts getting too deeply involved. The mentor is not the CEO or a co-founder, but neither are they above the CEO or the Founders.
If you have crossed this line in your mentor-mentee relationship already – it is time to scale it back maybe even take a break.
A mentor’s job is to do /advise you on what is best for you, not to make you happy.
This point is a personal favorite.
The mentor’s role is like that of a coach – they are present for the overall success of your company, not your success alone. Therefore, they must offer advice which is best for the company.
A self-respecting mentor will promptly quit if they get the message that their presence is to be a rubber stamp to your whims.
A founder should have multiple mentors.
This learning was new to me. A founder should seek out multiple mentors that can help them with different aspects of their business or challenges. As the startup grows, there should be a churn in the mentors with new mentors taking over from the mentors that have finished their role/utility.
A good mentor stands on the side-lines while you make mistakes.
An extension of point 2. Experienced mentors sit on the side-line while you make mistakes even if they could help you avoid them. The lesson of letting you experience failure and learning how to prevent future mistakes is more important than the experience of getting saved by the mentor.
A good mentor will warn the founder of the challenges but leave the final decision on them.
The mentor’s role is to guide the founder through their decisions, but in the end, the founder is the one that must pull the trigger. When a mentor starts making decisions for the founder stops taking responsibility for the results.
It would be best if you chose mentors that have substantial previous experience in the areas you need help
If you want to learn how to build a billion-dollar startup, who would you go to for help? The founder that built billion-dollar startups a couple of times or the founder struggling to get their startup out of their garage?
Even though this sounds like a simple point reiterated – I am surprised how many times founders commit this mistake.
The best mentors only take on mentoring projects that challenge them.
Good mentors get sought, but they aren’t running after the money. They are looking for a challenge. A challenge that will stretch them and help them grow thereby (and in most cases) helping the mentor and the mentee.
Mentors that are running after money will accept any project, regardless of whether it intrigues them are not the right choice for you and your startup.
The very best mentors get involved before the founders know that they need them and leave before the founders question their existence.
An involved mentor that is “in-sync” with their mentee knows precisely when to increase their involvement and when to decrease or terminate their relationship. A mentor that must be asked to leave has stopped paying attention.
It would be best if you convinced the mentor that you are worth their time investment, not the other way around
When a mentor is chasing you, explaining why you “need” their mentoring or pestering you to “sign-up” with them, they are a service provider. Service providers have other motives driving them but they are most likely not in line with your mentoring requirements.
The best mentors are so busy with their projects. They place a high value on their time. Therefore, you must convince them that you are worth the opportunity cost of their time – without using money as the offset.
My takeaway from the panel: Choosing is a mentor isn’t rocket science, but neither is it a game of roulette. Choose wisely through the generous application of common sense.