We have been running the FP50 Mentor Network, a community of experienced entrepreneurs and functional experts in London for at least two years now. Drawing on feedback on both sides, we share how startups can find suitable advisors, and what they should do to make the most of the relationship.
What is a mentor?
The mentor-mentee relationship has been immortalised in fiction as far back as Homer’s Odyssey, where the word originally comes from. Iconic film characters personify the qualities of what a young “Padawan” might come to expect in a mentor, from Yoda (the challenger), Mr Miyagi (the educator), Mickey, from Rocky (the cheerleader) and Dr Xavier (the connector). However, how do real-world examples and relationships stack up to such legends?
In his most recent book Tribe of Mentors, Tim Ferriss interviews 130+ of the world’s top performers, asking each of them for short life advice from the time they left college to the point they had achieved their greatest success. From iconic entrepreneurs to elite athletes, artists to billionaire investors. Skimming through the profiles from Ferris’ extensive rolodex, (everyone from Ray Dalio and Ben Stiller to Maria Sharapova), the book is crammed with ‘epithets of wisdom’, but outside the context of the ‘self-help’ genre, I was left feeling the author has missed the point of what a mentor really is.
When are mentors useful?
Mentors are talked about having more value than they deliver in practice. That's a controversial statement, and it may be that folks in more corporate spheres are having lots of great mentor relationships that I'm not seeing, but really solid examples of mentor-mentee relationships where there have been regular monthly meetings over a period of years and that are in any way similar to what is characterised in the movies, are hard to find.
Most people will have had a handful of people who have been generous with their time and made a difference to their career that they may sometimes later describe as mentors, but the relationships are rarely super close. That might be the more common pattern.
Diverse mentor profiles, ranging from academics to practitioners, as well as experienced entrepreneurs and investors, can provide an enriching experience for ventures. However, there are at least three things you should consider before going out there thinking it’s a simple matchmaking exercise:
You have to get along with them, and think that they're a great person to spend time with. This is as much about respect as anything else and it works both ways.
You have to aspire to want a little bit of what they have. Mentors come in all shapes and sizes, and it doesn't have to be a solely professional aspiration.
Be open to serendipity. The standard formula of "I'm looking for a mentor" + "I'm looking for a mentee" = successful relationship rarely works well in practice.
How do I make the most of the mentor-mentee relationship?
To a certain extent, mentors fill the gaps between formal training and the specific needs of each startup. Introducing industry experts helps to reduce the risk of thinking that one-size-fits-all without introducing overwhelming training requirements. Beyond the need for industry specific knowledge, multiple perspectives help to mitigate the risks associated with building a new company in conditions of high uncertainty and limited resources. These advantages come at a cost, however. It is worth bearing in mind some of the possible risks that mentoring support sometimes implies, especially when an holistic set of actors are thrown into the mixer.
Dealing with diverse inputs
In contexts where you are balancing the viewpoints of multiple stakeholders (board members, employees, peers) on top of seeking mentorship, a variety of inputs could spawn a lack of coherence and eventually generate confusion for founders receiving conflicting advice. This is especially true in cases where strategic challenges may be tackled by following equally reasonable, yet divergent, approaches. Intellectual property, for instance, may be managed via patent protection as well as open source release.
Either approach is supported by several examples of successful companies. Each mentor will suggest the former or the latter depending on his or her personal experience and perspective. Ultimately, the type of mentors who tend to be the most helpful in these situations are those who don’t necessarily give you an answer, but ask the right questions.
Mentoring as an expertise in its own right
Mentoring is an expertise of its own, and it is not automatically gained from experience. Mentors are not expected to provide answers or truth, but, rather, to encourage the right questions and actionable doubts. Moreover, mentors should not lead, not even by influence, in order to avoid disrupting the existing leadership positions inside the team. It is important to find seek a mentor who can abstract from their own experience. Successful entrepreneurs, for instance, might be subject to overconfidence and easily assume that what made their company work can be replicated, despite the difference in the times and the fact that innovative companies, by definition, are struggling to make things happen, that have never been done before.
While it’s not necessary to seek out Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk, mentors are typically high profile individuals. Reflecting on our own FP50 network, this often makes it unreasonable to introduce formal mentoring coordination mechanisms, possibly unacceptable or simply ineffective for most of them. For the same reason, a mentor training program would not be easy to deploy, although university outfits such as the MIT Venture Mentoring Service have proven otherwise.
Sometimes, it’s better to leave yourself open to serendipity and back yourself and your investors to make informal connections, which spawn from communities of interest.
Tim Ferriss - Tribe of Mentors - short life advice from 130+ top performers
MIT Venture Mentoring Service - great philosophy for a group mentoring system
LeanIn.org - campaign for senior men to mentor women and reduce gender pay gap