Choosing a mentor is very important because entrepreneurs, no matter how experienced they are, need someone with the appropriate expertise with whom they can discuss dilemmas and situations in the development of the business. On this page I have written down my experiences and opinions based on feedback from mentors and mentees over the last seven years since we launched the mentoring program at Primorska Technology Park.
Six aspects to consider
A very common question I am confronted with when working with startups is how to choose a suitable mentor. There are six aspects that I believe are important for the successful implementation of effective mentoring:
The mentor should be a person who holistically helps the mentee build a profitable business.
The true and only mentor for a startup entrepreneur is an entrepreneur who can advise them on building a company and establishing an effective business model, because the most important and ultimate goal of any entrepreneur should be to build a profitable business. The mentor must be able to give advice, especially in the areas of business models, business development and business in general. Mentoring should always be done in a CEO to CEO relationship. Simply put, someone who is an expert in FB advertising cannot be a good mentor. He can only be an expert at helping an entrepreneur figure out if the FB marketing channel is working for his business.
The mentor should be the CEO of a successful startup that is one or two development stages ahead of the mentee’s company.
A good mentor is someone who is one or two development stages ahead of the mentee’s company and has their own and, most importantly, successful entrepreneurial experience. When we talk about successful entrepreneurial experience, the relevant criteria are the amount of revenue generated, the number of employees, and/or the amount of profit generated by the company. Awards and titles are not among the criteria. It is also important to note that a highly experienced entrepreneur who has been running his or her own established business for 20 years is not the most appropriate mentor for someone who is just launching a new product. In that time, the conditions under which an experienced entrepreneur started a business may have changed completely. This statement should be taken with a grain of salt, but in general, the mentor must have fresh and current experience.
If the mentor does not have entrepreneurial experience of their own, they are not credible enough and mentees may subconsciously not take them seriously enough. As always, there are exceptions, but in most cases this is not the best solution.
The mentor should have a broad knowledge and structured approach to entrepreneurship in general.
A good mentor is characterised by being interested in different business models, following the startup community in their country and around the world, and constantly educating themselves in all entrepreneurial areas. A mentor who is broad in this sense is an excellent interlocutor for a mentee when they are looking for business models that might work for their company. A good mentor also has good communication skills and expresses empathy in the sense that he can challenge the mentee to think critically in conversation, but at the same time does not impose his aspects on him and allows him to think for himself.
The mentor should be concise and honest in communication.
In the growth and development of a business, there are always very serious moments and difficult decisions. Practically no entrepreneur can avoid this. Therefore, it is important that the mentor is a person who knows how to be concrete and honest, and who can keep an eye on the real situation. Dealing with such decisions quickly and honestly is crucial to the growth of the business and reduces the likelihood that the startup will end up on the bad side of the statistics.
When making such decisions, it is also inevitable that the entrepreneur will face his own personal challenges. A good mentor can therefore to some extent take on the role of a personality coach and try to guide the mentee in personality development or advise them on where to find an expert. This is precisely why a good mentor is so important for the mentee, because in addition to the business aspect, he also has a deep understanding of the mentee’s fears and concerns.
The mentor and its capabilities should correspond to the stage of status development.
A startup company goes through different stages of growth, so it is not necessary that the mentor is always the same during the development of the company. In the early stages, it is good if the mentor is more process-oriented to help with testing and market research focused on discovering the business model and building a repeatable sales process. In the later stages, the focus is on growth, the company’s development strategy, and the process of transforming from a startup to an efficient scaleup company. When selecting the first mentor, the qualities mentioned above are decisive, but not the fact that he has experience in the same industry as the mentee’s company. Basically, it is important that his knowledge only roughly matches the product (service vs. product, digital product vs. digital service, B2B vs. B2C, …). The entrepreneur can find a mentor with specific experience, which will be easier due to the larger social network of the mentee.
The mentor should be a person with whom you can establish a friendly relationship.
It is important that you build a good and solid relationship with your mentor based on trust. The personal and business lives of any entrepreneur are closely intertwined, and we know that the personal growth of the entrepreneur is also reflected in the growth of the business. In the relationship between mentor and mentee, openness and trust are the foundation for a successful mentoring outcome. For this very reason, it is important that mentor and mentee match in terms of personality. Simply put, if mentor and mentee can not even have a cup of coffee or a beer just to have fun, mentoring will pretty much be a waste of time.
“Main mentor” and several expert advisors
In the last 5 years, access to mentors and experts in Slovenia has really become really achievable with the help of various programs. In my experience, the most successful way for a startup entrepreneur is to find a “main mentor”. The goal here should be a long-term cooperation. In addition to the main mentor, the startup entrepreneur can also work with other experts where he can gain specific knowledge (marketing, analytics, networking, social networks, …). Here it is very important, if not crucial, that the mentee knows how to combine well the opinions of the mentor and the experts and understands how to use the knowledge of the experts to contribute to the growth strategy of the company with the help of a mentor. It is very unproductive when the opinions and views of the experts undermine the strategy that the mentee and mentor are working on.
The mentee’s role in the relationship with his mentor and other experts is not just to absorb knowledge and try to implement it in his company. It is also extremely important for the mentee to play the role of “referee” by listening carefully to the mentor and experts, trying to understand their aspects, and learning from their experiences as he develops his own unique strategy. It is said that an entrepreneur takes into account only 20% of all opinions he hears about his business. In my opinion, this statement should be taken with a grain of salt depending on the mentee’s level of knowledge.
It is also very important that the mentee considers the hierarchy of opinions. This means that he sets up a kind of master plan for the growth of the company, which he essentially creates with a main mentor, and subordinates other skills and strategies (e.g. the strategy to appear in social networks) to the master plan.
How to find the right mentor
Finding the right and good mentor is sometimes a difficult process. At this point, I recommend you to join one of the many technology parks or incubators in Slovenia for two reasons.
Technology parks and incubators have their own mentoring programs and through them a startup can find the right mentor. The staff at these institutions work with a large number of mentors on a daily basis and can advise which entrepreneur to ask for mentoring. In addition, there are many startup entrepreneurs who have already worked with mentors and have a lot of experience with them.
In any case, before selecting a main mentor, I recommend identifying a larger number of potential mentors (three to five) and calling or meeting with them first to determine if the mentor has the appropriate skills and is personally compatible.
I would like to point out that in my experience, the best mentors are selective. They are successful people with a passion for what they do, and mentoring is usually not their primary job. They devote a limited number of hours to mentoring and therefore only accept mentees who they believe will help them develop into successful entrepreneurs. I recommend that you prepare for the meetings and try to show your best side so that the mentor can see in you a person who is capable and motivated to build a successful business.
I hope this article helps you find the right people and make your business an exceptional success story.
Mitja Mikuž, Startup Community Manager
Primorska Technology Park