I am a Mentor for Techstars Boston, helping guide startup teams through the early-stage morass of product and business strategy. To kick off the program, the twelve or so founder teams set aside several days to tackle as many 30-minute meetings with mentors as possible – usually dozens.
Dubbed “Mentor Madness,” this process initially struck me as an inefficient approach, since startups have to repeat their story over and over. Additionally, many Boston mentors come from different industries and backgrounds with different levels of experience and armed with a wide range of opinions. How do startups handle so much potentially conflicting advice? How is this not confusing and frustrating and (seemingly) a waste of time for startups, when time is the single most important resource they have? It turns out there are some surprising and powerful outcomes of this process that weren’t clear to me at the outset.
First, stringing together a large number of back-to-back meetings provides a fantastic laboratory for testing whether a founder’s pitch makes sense and then refining it in situ. Did the mentors understand the fundamentals of the business, how it works, and the core customer value? Did they zoom in on the problem areas, and most importantly, were mentors able to quickly understand where they might be the most helpful? As demo day approaches, nothing may serve founders better than practice refining their pitch and effectively soliciting help (read: funding).
Then, putting honed business ideas up against the musings of multiple new minds directly challenges a weakness many early stage startups have: the insistence that they’re already on the single best path to success. Self-confidence and faith is imperative; however the most successful early stage startups are not afraid to reconsider their strategy and pivot early enough to survive. The integration of repeated, tough feedback from mentors helps founders understand they should be open to changing course.
I have a theory. If you get a few smart people to tell you your business or product direction needs help, you might brush it off. You probably ask yourself, what do they know that I haven’t spent a year already considering? But get an overwhelming barrage of thoughtful feedback all at once and a subtle attitude shift can occur – a realization that the current plan might have weaknesses. There may be better approaches, and these folks seem to be willing to help – why not let them lean-in?
In this situation, good founders can take a step back and recognize that a diversity of opinion opens up possibilities. Advice can be a resource to tap where you pick and choose what educates and inspires. The best founders learn to not take judgments personally or throw up defenses to strong recommendations. Instead, they mine the diversity of input for gems, develop the patience to recognize helpful input, and stay true to their underlying vision.
Finally, the sheer number of interactions with mentors increases the odds of finding a good connection between the founders and the mentor. I’ve stopped thinking of this as just a matchmaking process.
Instead, lots of meetings increase the number of opportunities for a mentor to lean-in and help with more than spot advice. For some of us, mentorship involves interacting across multiple teams and providing one with timely advice, another with a customer lead and a third with a working session on development. In each meeting there isn’t always an obvious opportunity to leverage a mentor’s experience or connections, but the startups that are open to help and willing to overclock on interactions will maximize the chances that a mentor will eventually offer more substantial assistance.
Something magical happens when startups are exposed to a big surge in input from helpful individuals. A recognition they are not alone, that possibilities open up when shields go down, and given enough interactions and openness to input, some skilled mentor is going to have the irresistible urge to drop what they’re doing and help a company in a more substantial way, right when they need it.