Mentors 11/18: Clearly Commit To Mentor Or Do Not. Either Is Fine

I’m hanging out with Morris Wheeler and his family for a few days in Cleveland. I first met Morris through my friend Howard Diamond, currently the CEO of MobileDay (which I’m on the board of). Both Morris and Howard are extraordinary Techstars mentors, so I was motivated this morning to knock out another post in my Deconstructing The Mentor Manifesto series as foreplay for me starting to work on my next book, #GiveFirst.

When we started Techstars in 2006, the concept of a mentor was very fuzzy. There were many people who called themselves “advisors” to startups, including a the entire pantheon on service providers. While the word mentor existed, it was usually a 1:1 relationship, where an individual had a “mentor”. It was also more prevalent in corporate America, where to make your way up the corporate ladder you needed a “mentor”, “sponsor”, or a “rabbi.”

We decided to use the word “mentor” to describe the relationship between the participants in the Boulder startup community who were working with the founders and companies that went through Techstars. We had our first program in Boulder in 2007 and had about 50 mentors. Many were local Boulder entrepreneurs, a few were service providers who were particularly active in the startup community (including a few investors), and some were non-Boulder entrepreneurs such as Dick Costolo (ex-Feedburner – then at Google) and Don Loeb (ex-Feedburner – also then at Google, now at Techstars as VP Corporate Development). Basically, I reached out to all my friends and said “would you be a mentor for this new Techstars thing we are doing?”

At the time, we had no real clue what the relationship between mentor and founder would be. We knew that we wanted real engagement – at least 30 minutes per week – rather than just an “advisor name on a list.” We expected that engaging local mentors would be easier than non-local mentors. We defined rules of engagement around what mentoring meant, which did not preclude early investment, but did preclude charging any fees during the mentoring period.

Over time, we realized – and figured out – a number of things. When I talk about the early days of Techstars, remember that the concept of a “mentor-driven accelerator” didn’t exist and that the idea of an accelerator was still in its invention phase.

One of the biggest lessons was encapsulated in this part of the mentor manifesto. As mentorship became a thing, we suddenly had a supply of mentors that overwhelmed us. Everyone wanted to be a mentor. In 2008, we knew a little about what was effective and what wasn’t, so we continued to try to be inclusive of anyone who wanted to be a mentor, although I’m sure we blew this in plenty of cases. But we started seeing lots of mentors who did a single flyby meeting with the program, but never really engaged with any of the founders or companies in a meaningful way.

It probably took us until 2011 to really understand this and put some structure around it. By now, we had programs in multiple cities and managing directors who had different styles for engaging the local mentor community. And, mentorship was no longer a fuzzy word – it has shifted over into trendy-language-land and everyone was calling themselves a mentor, even if they weren’t. And being a mentor for a program like Techstars suddenly started appearing as a job role on LinkedIn.

Today we’ve got deep clarity on what makes for effective mentorship. And, more importantly, what makes a mentor successful and additive to an accelerator. A fundamental part of this is a commitment to engage. Really engage. As in spend time with the founders and the companies. It doesn’t have to be all of them – but it has to be deep, real, and with a regular cadence (at least weekly) over the three month program.

If you aren’t ready or able to commit, that’s totally cool. Don’t be a mentor, but you can still engage with the program and the companies through the philosophy I’ve talked about many times of “being inclusive of anyone who wants to engage” (principle three of the Boulder Thesis from Startup Communities).

And yes, this one is a hat tip to Yoda’s “Do or do not, there is no try.”

  • Does Techstars currently have a “deal flow” of mentors? I assume you don’t have reach out too much and ask people to do it.

    If that’s correct, do you even have a waiting list of them I wonder?

    I assume that the prime motivation would be to pay it forward and to be part of the ecosystem that Dave Cohen, you and others have built? Or are there “applicants” who are somehow “incorrectly motivated” that you subsequently need to flush out?

    • There’re is a huge pipeline / backlog of people who want to be mentors in each location. We’ve systematized a lot of this so we have ways to evaluate and being people on as mentors if / when appropriate. But there are a lot of different potential motivations and abilities for each mentor so before someone becomes an official mentor we work hard to make sure there is alignment on expectations.

  • Matt Kruza

    Hey Brad, quick question? You doing any talks or attending events when here in Cleveland. If were would love to meet or say brief hello. If its just a personal / fun trip or doing nothing public I understand, but figured I would take the chance to see. One of my real goods friends work for Morris (have met him in passing at a few events) and I am super passionate for the entrpreneuriial space here in Cleveland (working extremely hard on my current start-up, but not raising money so no newbie annoying pitching here ..) and not everyday we get your type in this area, and would love to make a connection if possible. If by any chances there are any opportunities let me know (can re-arrange any part of my schedule), and if not enjoy your time here in the CLE… long-term there are a few very exciting venture models / theses that I think the Midwest and Cleveland in specific can bring about.

    • I’m doing some personal stuff on this trip and I’m full up today (and going home tomorrow early morning) so I don’t think I can get together. But I may be back soon.

      • Matt Kruza

        Totally understand. Appreciate the reply and have a good day here and safe trip home. If you are headed back anytime would love to meet up briefly. Can send you my info sometime or Morris’s employee Lesia knows me real well so she’d have my cell / email etc.

  • Outside the context of Techstars, the deep engagement you advocate can be an obstacle to entrepreneurs accessing the help they need from their communities. “Deep, real, and with a regular cadence” is too big an ask unless the mentor perceives that the company asking for help has a very good chance of becoming successful.

    The compact Techstars provides its mentors: You’ll be mentoring companies that have passed through filter so aggressive that companies’ attractiveness are 3 sigmas or so above the mean (less than 1% of companies are accepted.) In other words, it’s easy to get the ladies on the dance floor when all of the men wanting to dance are super models.

    The flip side is the psychology that people don’t want to back startups that they perceive as losers.

    I believe the perception of attractiveness of the startup in question is directly proportional to mentors’ willingness to deeply engage. Do you agree, Brad? If you do, does it logically follow that a less deep engagement model needs to emerge for those companies that aren’t super-model-sexy?

    • While probably directionally correct,I don’t think this is an absolute truth.

      I’ve mentored plenty of companies that did not go through Techstars and I’ve tried to be responsive to a very broad range of entrepreneurs over the years. As a result I think there are very different motivations for mentors depending on where they are in their own life/career, where they are geographically, and what they want to get out of the experience.

      I’m also not a believer in the “super-model-sexy” view of entrepreneurship. Many of the companies I work with, especially at the very beginning and with first time entrepreneurs, are completely unformed. I’m attracted to something about the entrepreneur and that causes me to engage.

      • Points taken, Brad.

        What I’m driving at is the larger point: the selectivity required for an engagement of any mentor to become deeply involved with an entrepreneur.

        The x-axis for the bell curve will be different things for different people and different organizations, and indeed, it changes for the same people and org.s in different situations. Call it “sexy,” “potential,” “track record,” “trustworthiness,” “earnestness,” or “sparkle.” The label doesn’t matter. The selectivity seems to be a fact given the depth of investment required of the mentor.

        Mentorship doesn’t escape the laws of microeconomics despite its “gift economy” nature.

        The work you, Techstars, other GAN member accelerators and many others have done has proven the efficacy of mentorship, as defined by your manifesto. There’s nothing at all wrong with this model once the mentoring begins.

        So clear are the benefits of mentoring that the demand for it is very high. The supply simply cannot keep up in Startup Communities.

        As Communities, we have some options.

        We can make the status quo a little more inclusive at the margins by (1) getting a few more experts to become mentors, or (2) prodding existing mentors to work with a couple of more companies each (perhaps in the context of new mentor-led accelerator programs.) In this scenario, the mentoring continues to follow the manifesto’s tenets, but microeconomics dictates that we will continue to skim only the cream of the entrepreneurs.

        And, we can look for a complementary toolset. I believe this is a high velocity, shallow-dive, many-to-many engagement model. It probably shouldn’t be called mentorship; let’s not return to the “fuzzy” state of the word in `06. The tools ought to bridge the self-directed and experiment-driven Lean methodology and your mentorship model. There are an awful lot of startups that will benefit.