Mentors have been a part of our lives from the very beginning. As kids, our parents were our mentors. As we grew up, teachers became our mentors and as we moved into professional life, we found mentors in the company/industry. These mentors bring in a level of trust and wisdom that are guiding lights as we walk through life.
Similarly, start-up founders will find invaluable advice come in from such mentors/advisors. In the early days, these people prove to be excellent advisors as founders build their products and sharpen their propositions to align them with customer needs, formulate the business strategy and revenue model, get access to potential customers for the early pilots, etc.
And as all of this shapes up, founders can leverage these mentors to connect with investors. A warm introduction by the mentor goes a long way with the investors, which is truly leveraging their credibility.
As ventures grow, founders will need help from mentors with different experiences. Initial mentors could well be your professors who help build the tech or product, someone who can help with the business strategy.
Then as angel investors bring in funds, they also invest their time to help the company—set up its operations for scale, build the team, help with critical first customers and bring the company to a point where it can raise its first institutional funding. As the company grows, they will bring in new mentors and this continues. It doesn’t mean they shed their earlier mentors—they just add new people to help them as they grow.
There are companies that have engaged their very early mentors and as they grew they brought in others, even when going public. And even as they plan to delist, they are bouncing off strategies and taking advice from a new set of mentors! This does emphasise that it is important to keep learning, taking advice and growing.
The perspectives and experiences of domain experts and successful entrepreneurs are absolutely critical, but all of these mentors just share their views and hold up a mirror to the founders on the implications of their decisions. Apart from helping with the product and connecting to customers, investors and even potential team members, three very critical values that mentors bring in are credibility, crisis management and cohesiveness.
1. It is common for mentors to leverage their credibility and connect their start-ups to decision makers at the customer or investor organisations, something that could have otherwise taken founders much longer to reach and would waste critical time and resources. 2. The second is never evident till it happens. Start-ups are very vulnerable and often face crises. This is when the mentor really helps steer the company out of problems with their sage advice, or weaves in with requisite help very quickly. This was very evident in the recent lockdown phase.
Operations of almost every start-up came to a grinding halt. However, many of them survived as they were helped out of the crisis by some brilliant mentoring from people to restart, albeit in a new avatar. It was these mentors who worked day and night over 100+ days along with the founders to ensure the company did not die but survived to see another day and, in some cases, leverage the lockdown and pandemic to grow even faster! 3. Mentors can bring in huge value but one critical input is the ability to stitch the team together.
As the company grows, it will recruit talent that will come with different experiences and cultures. While the founders spend time to bring the team together, they will really look to the experienced mentor for smoothing the rough edges and stitching a cohesive top team. Hence, it is important for founders to ensure mentors are well engaged. There are many ways of doing this: inviting them to join the company’s board, advisory committee, strategy sessions, providing them some equity, engaging them in regular conversations, etc.
It is important to ensure your company is part of their mind space and they are engaged enough to proactively contribute. And for mentors, engaging with start-ups is more than just getting a few shares in the company. It is imperative that they work with companies where they understand the proposition, are engaged in the sector, can give some cycles of time and have a chemistry with the founders.
As much as the company engages with the mentor, it is imperative that the mentor is excited enough to work with the founders and be accessible for strategic discussions as well when the founders need help.
But the mentor is not running the company and is just providing advice to the founder. It is the founder who is running the firm. Just as the mentor understands their role as an advisor, it is important for founders to understand that they cannot delegate decision-making to the mentor. It is their company and they are responsible for their team and shareholders. After all, the mentor is the coach, not the captain!
Padmaja Ruparel (padmaja@ indianangelnetwork.com)
Co-founder, Indian Angel Network, and Founding Partner, IAN Fund