The Startup Mentor Manifesto, Inverted for Startup Teams

This post is a review of the Techstars Mentor Manifesto, from an inverted perspective, to guide startup teams on how they should think about their relationship with mentors (especially during an accellerator program).

This post was prepared as part of a talk I gave on March 8, 2016 at the VCU Startup Spring Break on “How to choose and work with a mentor”. It is informed by over five years of mentoring startups during various accellerator programs as well as my professional experience as an entrepreneur and consultant. I maintain a collection of startup mentoring-related links as well.

The “key” for reading this post:

  • the original quoted lines from the Mentor Manifesto are italicized and not indented
  • my inversions for startups are the bulleted, indented items below them
  • after this list there are some subhead items - that is new/original material.

Be socratic.

  • Mentors ask a lot of questions, be prepared to engage them in healthy debate

Expect nothing in return (you’ll be delighted with what you do get back).

  • Beware the mentor who seems like they have an agenda
  • Beware the mentor who has a huge ego

Be authentic / practice what you preach.

  • Expect Authenticity
  • Be very wary if you smell BS

Be direct. Tell the truth, however hard.

  • If a mentor is sugar-coating what they tell you, then that isn’t helpful
  • There are no safe spaces in the startup world

Listen too.

  • Make sure you’re communicating with your mentor in a a way that is clear
  • Don’t be intimidated - be unafraid to get really explicit with them

The best mentor relationships eventually become two-way.

  • Mentors need feedback too!

Be responsive.

  • Expect the same level of responsiveness from your mentor as you would … a vendor?

Adopt at least one company every single year. Experience counts.

  • Seek a lead mentor
  • Don’t be afraid to switch lead mentors as your company grows and your needs fundamentally change - but be aware of the risk of losing their “institutional knowledge” – this may take the form of more formal advisors or board members

Clearly separate opinion from fact.

  • Be aware of opinion vs fact
  • When giving an opinion, I tell the companies I’m working with: “This is just my opinion, feel free to completely disregard it as I’m sure I don’t have all the variables you do”

Hold information in confidence.

  • Share as much as you possibly can so that your mentor has the complete picture
  • Exception: What are the mentor’s possible conflicts of interest?

Clearly commit to mentor or do not. Either is fine.

  • Seek explicit commitment
  • Expect committed behavior
  • Trust is established this way

Know what you don’t know. Say I don’t know when you don’t know. “I don’t know” is preferable to bravado.

  • Establish connections with a number of mentors, use the non-Lead mentors to fill in gaps of knowledge
  • Ask your mentor who they’d recommend, who they can make intros to?

Guide, don’t control. Teams must make their own decisions. Guide but never tell them what to do. Understand that it’s their company, not yours.

  • You must never expect a mentor to be a decision maker for you or your company

Accept and communicate with other mentors that get involved.

  • Often mentoring sessions are one-on-one, or the team with the mentor…
  • Share what other mentors have said to you, to get validation and/or different opinions
  • Let more than just the “CEO” communicate with the mentors - mentorship works best when the team gets exposure to the mentor

Be optimistic.

  • Expect Optimism!

Provide specific actionable advice, don’t be vague.

  • Drive your mentor to give you actionable advice
  • Don’t accept vagueness from them

Be challenging/robust but never destructive.

  • Expect to be challenged
  • Don’t allow yourself to be torn down - being mentored might be challenging, but it should never be toxic

Have empathy. Remember that startups are hard.

  • Mentors should know that startups are hard and have empathy for you

Mentors talk among themselves about:

  • The general viability your product/company/team - especially if they’ve seen similar ideas before
  • Your “coachability”

As a mentor, I want from my teams:

  • To display professionalism - my time is valuable, and this is a volunteer gig for me - please be on time and prepared for our meetings.
  • To show energy! However, I know that sometimes teams can get beat down, if I feel a lack of energy I may probe on that and see what’s up.
  • To keep me informed of their progress, during a program and after, even if we aren’t meeting regularly. I’ve invested my time and energy in a program, and when it’s over, I still care about you and your success.

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