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.

Why Founders Hammering Each Other is Important

In business, it is important to demarcate the line where friendship ends and “foundership” begins. When friendship becomes the rockface that does not allow negative feedback to flow within a founding team, it is a sure shot recipe for disaster.
Therefore, it is extremely important for the founding team to schedule a time every week to have a candid feedback session where problems plaguing the company and individuals’ business challenges are discussed openly. These are going to be sessions where there will be finger pointing, criticism, disagreements, heated arguments and maybe even a few tears, but the objective is to achieve what is best for the company without pandering to individuals’ egos. They may not conclude the solutions to those problems in that meeting, but with the problems laid out clearly for everyone, each founder is now aware of the issues and can start to think of ways to resolve them.
Sometimes founders require the help of an outsider to initiate these meetings. It could be a mutual friend, a mentor, a board member or even a family member that all the founding members trust. This person could also be responsible for mediating conversations and deciding the right course of action in case there is an impasse and the founders should be ready to accept his/her decision if it comes to that.
Strengthening the conversational muscle may take time, there might be some uncomfortable moments and an uber number of reasons to discontinue the process. However, I must tell you that there is nothing more exciting to investors and employees (current and prospective) than a founding team that self-analyses, course corrects and keeps growing without outside intervention.

Desperation is the Name of the Game

If all things are equal between two candidates that want me to be their mentor, what would be the difference, that would make all the difference? No, it’s not how equity you will give me or how much respect you have for me… The correct answer is – desperation.
I am not referring to the desperation to get time, money or references, but the desperation that burns through the eyes and words of the prospective mentee to succeed. The desperation that cannot be dissuaded by failure, drowned out by rejection or simply because they didn’t get an immediate response from someone they attempted reaching out to for help. I am referring to that desperation that will make a person turn the world upside down to get what they want – yes that desperation.
In a world of unlimited opportunity, this is the kind of desperation I look for, to decide who I should devote my limited time (a precious resource) to. A person must innately want to achieve the skill he is seeking my mentorship for, and not only be attempting to achieve it because he ‘has to’. This distinction leads to a visible difference in the amount of passion and desperation a person exudes.
The lack of this type of desperation and conviction in the importance of achieving that skill doesn’t bode well for my ROTI (Return on Time Invested).
So, if you think I’m being arrogant, standoffish or aloof to your call for help, I am only checking to see if you are as desperate as you are making it out to be.

The Olive Tree

As an angel investor and an individual who possesses a serious entrepreneurial streak I sit through atleast 150-200 business pitches in a month. As a fellow entrepreneur I am in awe of all entrepreneurs as they should be complimented and encouraged for having the guts to plunge into what is – the scariest and the most thrilling roller coaster ride of one’s life.
Their energy and belief don’t make it easy for us “angels” investors (who came up with that adjective?) but an entrepreneur should know that it is quite difficult to point out the flaws your business plan and to balance the criticism with an equal amount of positivity and encouragement so as to ensure that the entrepreneur is motivated to go back to the drawing board instead of jumping off a cliff (metaphorically!)
What I find particularly unnerving and confusing is how to deal with an entrepreneur once you have entrusted him/her with your hard earned money? You have placed your trust in the team and the idea but are you planting the seed in a greenhouse, where it requires your care and attention (and a pep talk)? Or in the forest where it has to fend for itself?
On the one you have a school of thought that suggests that angel investors take an activist role in the running of the company, revamping all procedures and plans and replacing them with the experience that they have collectively gained through running businesses of their own. The other school of thought suggests playing the role of mentor or even a helpline operator, giving the entrepreneur their own space and focussing on problem solving by focussing on the results instead of the methods employed to get there.
But which one is right? Whilst grappling with this conundrum I came across the following poem from Sabine Baring-Gould. The message conveyed in the poem is self-explanatory and it definitely inspires me to be a more open minded investor.
In my honest opinion, what got me to invest into the idea was the energy, zeal and the uniqueness of the entrepreneur and his/her idea – so why kill all of that by bringing my (or the lead investor’s) own company running methodology? I am not promoting giving the entrepreneur free reign and let the cattle run wild – but it does make me conclude that an angel investor(s) should decide with the entrepreneur on the KPIs/metrics that they want to track and then actively and periodically track those metrics and any statutory compliances. The investor should get involved in two scenarios – one when a metric starts to move away from the desirable range that was previously agreed to and second if the entrepreneur specifically reaches out for help.
But meanwhile if the entrepreneur is performing and meeting all his/her metrics and he/she wants to have a lasertag game at the office and start an incentive program that offers a cold beer to the staff on Monday evenings – I say go right ahead!

The Olive Tree
Said an ancient hermit bending
Half in prayer upon his knee,
‘Oil I need for midnight watching,
I desire an olive tree.’
Then he took a tender sapling,
Planted it before his cave,
Spread his trembling hands above it,
As his benison he gave.
But he thought, the rain it needeth,
That the root may drink and swell;
‘God! I pray Thee send Thy showers!’
So a gentle shower fell.
‘Lord! I ask for beams of summer
Cherishing this little child.”
Then the dripping clouds divided,
And the sun looked down and smiled.
‘Send it frost to brace its tissues,
O my God!’ the hermit cried.
Then the plant was bright and hoary,
But at evensong it died.
Went the hermit to a brother
Sitting in his rocky cell:
‘Thou an olive tree possessest;
How is this, my brother tell?’
‘I have planted one and prayed,
Now for sunshine, now for rain;
God hath granted each petition,
Yet my olive tree hath slain!’
Said the other, ‘I entrusted
To its God my little tree;
He who made knew what it needed
Better than a man like me
Laid I on Him no conditions,
Fixed no ways and means; so I
Wonder not my olive thriveth,
Whilst thy olive tree did die.’
– Sabine Baring-Gould-