Startups are all about finding the right fit. Finding the right co-founder. Finding the right market. Finding the right investors. It’s all about connecting the puzzle pieces to reveal the bigger picture.
Another fit that is essential, especially for first-time founders, is finding the right mentor. The right mentor can help a founder maintain focus and avoid potential pitfalls on their path to market.
A trusted advisor can become a valuable team member as you navigate the startup process. However, it’s often difficult to know what to look for in a mentor.
Here are some tips to help you determine who is the right mentor for you.
Mind the gap
Most people strike out on their own as an entrepreneur, in part, because they are good at something. Maybe you’re great at building software, maybe you’re a finance savant, or maybe you just have a knack for business.
When you set out to find a mentor, you need to target someone with a specific set of skills, not just a good business sense. Try to find a mentor whose skills are complementary to what you bring to the table.
“First-time founders need to identify the skills and experience they need from a mentor, starting with the gaps in their own experience,” said Matt Moog, the CEO of PowerReviews and an active angel investor. “As you look to formalize the relationship with a mentor, make it clear what you are requesting from them in terms of time commitment and availability.”
The primary gaps in your skill set should primarily be filled by your co-founder — there shouldn’t be two technical co-founders and no business-savvy co-founder. But, a mentor can bring tertiary skills and knowledge that is essential to success.
Your top mentor should not only be able to fill the gaps left by your skillset and knowledge base, but should also be able bring a new way of thinking to the team.
According to David Mandell, co-founder and CEO of PivotDesk and a mentor for TechStars, founders should look for people who challenge their way of thinking. The reason for mentorship, he said, is to have someone who pushes you past your comfort zone.
“It takes a lot less effort to agree with you than it does to shed new light on the topic,” Mandell said. “Those who challenge you are the ones willing to expend the energy and commit the time to really think through the problems you’re facing. “
One of the biggest questions a founder will have about the mentorship process is how they can actually go about tracking down a mentor. The obvious starting point is within your personal circle and local community.
Attend local startup and tech events in your area. Do your best to meet everyone there and figure out what each person does. For folks in smaller areas, though, your perfect match may be a few levels removed from your inner circle.
“As a first-time founder, your ideal mentor may not be in your immediate personal network. But chances are, there are multiple ideal mentors only one introduction away,” Moog said. “Ask for that introduction. You’d be surprised at how often you get a yes.”
Another approach is to strategically plan your attack. Andrew Ackerman, Managing Director of DreamIt Ventures NY, recommends making a target list. Find the people you think would add real value and work on getting connected to them.
Find the successful companies in your area and network with the founders. Search some of the companies you know on LinkedIn and see if there is a shared connection that can introduce you. If there’s no connection, take a direct approach.
“Find a way to get in front of them,” Ackerman said. “Are they talking at a tech event? On a pitch panel? Go and meet them in person. No connection at all? Send them a detailed, but short, email requesting a meeting.”
If you manage to get a meeting with a potential mentor, make sure you know what you want to say.
Refine your pitch
Once you figure out who you think would be a good mentor for you and your team, you have to be able to tell your story.
“You need to be able to describe your vision in a compelling way. Practice telling your story in a concise and inspiring way,” said John Sculley, an investor, entrepreneur, and mentor, and the former CEO of Apple.
Start the process by working on your elevator pitch. You can learn more about crafting an elevator pitch here. If you are able to articulate what you want to accomplish and, more importantly, what you need from a mentor, you will start the relationship off on a stronger foundation.
Vet your mentor
A good mentor can come from a plethora of relationships or situations. As so, it is important to make sure you are connected with the right person.
Start with founders who have been mentored by this person in the past. Ackerman recommends asking questions about things like depth of domain expertise, the strength of the mentor’s connections, and the quality of the introductions that were made by the mentor.
“This is going to be a long-term relationship, you don’t want to be in bed with a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Ackerman said.
Find someone that has the kind of wisdom that can keep you from running into certain problems. According to Ackerman, clearing the air regarding requirements and expectations can give you a good look into a potential mentor candidate. He recommends using a template such as The Founder Institute’s Founder/ Advisor Standard Template (FAST).
The key is to know who you are dealing and clearly set expectations before moving forward into a more formal business relationship.
Make the investment
Finding a solid mentor is just like any other type of networking — it’s not a one-way street.
“As a founder, your relationships are invaluable across the board,” Mandell said. “Whether you’re looking for a mentor or not, you should be investing in people — investing your time into the startup community around you.”
Sure, your life is hectic. You’re probably pulling 12 to 16 hour days and you practically live in your inbox, but getting anything valuable out of your local startup requires an equally valuable investment into that scene.
Mandell said that his time mentoring at Techstars has played a major part in shaping his circle. While he applies his entrepreneurial experience as a mentor, he said first-time founders can be equally as important to startup programs.
“You have business experience you’ve worked on throughout your career and whatever your expertise, there’s a high chance another new founder in your community could benefit from talking with you,” Mandell said. “Don’t be afraid to offer your help.”
If you don’t think you have any advice to bring to the table, bring yourself. Help set up local startup events and work to drive interest in the scene. Do your best to show that you value innovation and want to see your startup scene thrive.