The Value in Mentoring

The rapid growth in the number of accelerator programs in the start-up world  brings the role of mentoring to the fore as a valuable tool for helping emerging entrepreneurs. With high profile programs such as Y Combinator, Techstars in the US and Springboard, Seedcamp, Startup Bootcamp, Oxygen and Mola amongst others in Europe. Following a similar model, start-ups are given office space cash and access to industry experts, in exchange for a small slice of equity. At the end of the three month program they then present to investors in the hope of securing further seed funding for their products.

Apart from hard cash, one of the key elements of the accelerator program offered to nascent companies is a mentoring. Mentors are usually sourced from a wide talent pool that includes individuals with practical experience in areas directly relevant to start-ups. This can include individuals experienced in; VC investment, PR, business development, finance and more experienced entrepreneurs. What is the value of this to young companies? At first glance, the top line benefits would appear to be the opportunity to tap into the mentor's experience and gain feedback and insight into the problems they are grappling with. Secondly, gaining access to the mentor's contacts book could also help open doors at a crucial stage. Both of these benefits would appear to be an invaluable opportunity for young companies.

However, I would argue that this access, whilst nice to have, will only have a limited impact on the long-term development and performance of young enterprises. In actual fact,  mentoring can be much more powerful and have a far more profound impact, however there is a caveat. Rather than dealing with the practical and specific day to day issues, the greatest upside potential in this situation is for the mentor to help the start-ups deal with and manage the huge amount of uncertainty they are dealing with. In other words rather than seeking specific answers to questions, the mentor can provide a far more valuable service by helping the start-ups figure out what are the right questions to ask.

Concentrating on asking the right questions, an ability to question ones own assumptions and dealing with inherent uncertainty is arguably far more valuable in the long-run than getting short term answers to questions and practical issues. The problem with seeking answers rather than questions is that despite their best intentions, mentors may not be able to provide optimal guidance based on their own experience. What may have worked for them in the past may not be the correct course of action for the entrepreneurs they are mentoring. This is especially true in the world of tech start-ups that accelerator programs inhabit.

The caveat to this approach is that this type of mentoring  requires a very specific relationship dynamic between mentor and mentee. Where a conducive dynamic does not exist, no amount of effort on the part or either mentor or start-up is going to result in a productive outcome. Where strong relationships underpin the mentoring process, it becomes less about the transfer of explicit knowledge and insight but instead far more subtle and potentially rewarding.

I would argue that it is far less important for mentors to have experience in an area that is perceived to be compatible or beneficial to a start-up than it is to have a relationship with strong learning and collaborative potential. This approach forces both parties to look beyond what is obvious and encourages a more considered approach based not on seeking answers to questions but figuring out what are the right questions to be asking, in this case it does not matter if the mentor has the answers or not. By taking the time to understand the way relationship dynamics will affect this process, it becomes possible to develop a program that offers far greater long-term potential to young entrepreneurs.


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