Mentors 12/18: Know What You Don’t Know. Say I Don’t Know When You Don’t Know

Techstars Boulder Demo Day is this week. It always marks the true end of summer for me and it’s a reminder that I stalled out on my Techstars Mentor Manifesto series of blog posts.

The last one I wrote was #11: Clearly Commit To Mentor Or Do Not. Either Is Fine. It’s an important life rule – either commit or don’t commit – but choose! Mentor Manifesto #12 is also a good life rule: Know What You Don’t Know. Say I Don’t Know When You Don’t Know.

We all know Mr. Smartest Guy In The Room. I find him insufferable and have nicknamed him Mr. Smartypants. Unfortunately, there are a lot of Mr. Smartypants in my world as he inhabits the bodies of some entrepreneurs and the souls of a lot of investors. Regardless of who he manifests himself in, he’s still tiresome and when there are two of him in the room, watch out.

The best mentors are not Mr. Smartypants. While a great mentor knows a lot and has had plenty of experiences, she’s always learning. The best mentor/mentee relationships are peer relationships, where the mentor learns as much from the mentee as she teaches the mentee. There’s no room in this relationship for Mr. Smartypants.

I know a lot about some things. And I know very little, or nothing about a lot more things. My business and technology experience is deep in software, where even the hardware companies we are investors in (Fitbit, Sphero, Makerbot, Glowforge, littleBits, and some others) are what we like to refer to as “software wrapped in plastic.” At the essence of it all is software and that’s what I know best.

But I don’t know all software. And I especially don’t know vertical markets. We’ve consciously stayed horizontal in our investing, being much more interested in our themes which apply to many different vertical markets. But ask me about a vertical market, whether it be entertainment, real estate, insurance, auto, food, energy, or financial services and I’ll often approach it with a beginners mind.

In some cases I think something generic will apply to a vertical market. But when asked about something structural, even though I’ve had lots of different experiences, read a zillion magazine articles over the years, and might have some opinions, as a mentor I’m quick to say I Don’t Know, unless I’m confident that I do.

When I find myself in an “I Don’t Know” situation as a mentor, I immediately start trying to figure out who I can refer the entrepreneur to who might know something about the situation. And, just because I don’t know doesn’t mean I’m not curious about finding out more. I’ll often stay engaged and hear what the mentor has to say, just so I get the benefit of having more data in my head to play around with in the future.

I say “I don’t know” or some version of it at least daily. How often do you say it?