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Ask For Help / Startup

Dear Entrepreneur, Go Get A Mentor

We entrepreneurs are mostly busy trying to get our own stuff together and don’t spend the time to search for long-term support. Let’s fix that.

Who needs mentorship?

We entrepreneurs are so busy getting stuff done that it often restricts our ability to ask ourselves the tough, introspective questions. We need someone who has been there, done (some of) that, and is willing to be on your personal team. We need a mentor.

Mentorship and Mentors in India

What do I know about being mentored?

I have had the good fortune of having had two mentors through my entrepreneurial journey. In both cases, the mentor-mentee relationship lasted well past the originally stated goals/timelines.

Their impact on how I think about my startup and my career has lasted for years after having moved on.

Additionally, I was approached by a couple of entrepreneurs for advice and guidance, and I could give them solid support.

My experiences of being a mentee, and now advising others led me to write this. I wish I had this article available before I worked with my mentors. Hindsight, FTW!

Mentor vs. Guru vs. Well-wisher

Mentor [Consistent] : Guru [Infrequent] : Well-wisher [Ad hoc]

Mentor is someone with whom you can maintain a consistent, long-term dialogue about improving yourself. To derive genuine value out of the mentorship, you need to be able to meet this person consistently for many years.
Your mentor needs to be able to work with you towards not just giving advice for now but see how you took said advice, what you did with it and how it played out. They can then use this learning to better support you in the future.
[My Mentor relationships lasted 5 and 4 years respectively. They did not overlap. I met my mentor at least once every quarter].

Guru is someone whom you can reach out to infrequently. There is no pressure for them to conform to a set schedule or set themselves up for a long-term, consistent relationship of advice and support. It is great to have a Guru, but the lack of consistently scheduled meetings is the differentiating factor.
[An example: I consider a superb serial entrepreneur in Mumbai as my guru. I feel comfortable enough to reach out to him as required but sometimes do not reach-out even for an entire year. Also, getting him up to speed with what I’ve been doing in the last 6 months would require a lot more time].

Well-wisher is a diluted form of the guru. You can call or WhatsApp them without a prior appointment. They are a great source for quick “bouncing of ideas”. More informal, more accessible; they can be your juniors, peers or acquaintances. You can have many well-wishers, but they cannot take the place of a Mentor.

How does one find a mentor?

There is no Tinder or Linkedin to find Mentors. At least, not the way mentorship is supposed to work.

You both need to know something about each other and meet one or two times informally before you begin the mentorship discussion.

Here are some ways to find potential mentors:

  • Industry events.
    Go to industry events and work hard to get an invite to the evening networking sessions/cocktails. This is where the most experienced and successful people from the industry hang out.
  • Industry bodies.
    Organisations such as TIE, CII, iSpirt, and Nasscom give you an opportunity to build relationships with the kind of people who could become your mentors.
  • FoaF (Friend of a Friend).
    The fancy kids call it Social Networks, these days :). If you have recognized a potential mentor, feel free to reach out through connections you share in common. This is also known as a warm-introduction.
  • Seniors/Bosses in former organizations/teams.
    Now that the pressure of performance is gone, they could make for a great mentor. They know you, they (hopefully) like you, and know enough about what you do to give genuine advice.

How does one not find a mentor?

  • Cold Calling
    Cold calls hardly ever work in this context. So if you decide to call or message someone out of the blue, be prepared to face resistance or get a negative answer.

How do you start the mentor-mentee relationship?

A mentor-mentee relation needs to be clearly articulated and recognized. You have to let your mentor know that you want to be mentored and require X hours of their time every few weeks/months. Set up the parameters of the meetings and go through your goals and expectations. This is an important relationship, do not be ambiguous.

Getting ready to be mentored

Getting ready to be mentored takes careful planning. While there is no single game-plan that works for everyone, I have thought through and highlighted some important points to ponder. Even if you are already a mentee, maybe you can enrich your own mentorship using these ideas.

  • Have a list of reasons and goals that you are working towards. Think of this as preparing a list of challenges or problems that you are facing and would like their thoughts on. They may be both long and short-term. Items may change over time; so be open to refreshing them. Expectation setting is critical.
  • Be brutally honest about your problems and areas where you feel you are lost/unable to move the needle. Lead the conversation — come prepared with thoughts, questions, and topics you want to discuss.
    I’ve asked about interviewing skills to evaluate candidates better.
    I’ve asked about methods on getting team feedback.
    I’ve asked about trying out influencer marketing.
    I’ve asked about scaling and the pitfalls of trying to scale too soon.
    I’ve asked if I’m being true to my values.
    I’ve asked if I’m even doing something of value.
  • Take notes.
    Your discussions could touch upon various topics and often, important details or suggestions may fall by the wayside. Make it a priority to take notes during your conversations with your mentors.
    In a recent conversation with my mentor (mid-2018), I referred to notes from our conversations in 2014! Needless to say, I could see that he was impressed and relieved — that his mentoring was taken very seriously by me. The last thing your mentor wants is to see that they are sharing their precious time but not seeing any actual seriousness from your side.
  • Do not demand that your mentor remembers everything about your business. Be ready to give examples and provide updates/data each time you meet, so they can better advise you.
  • Asking your boss/investor to mentor you may not be a great idea.
    Be careful.
    This person may be a phenomenal professional with a lot of relevant experience. However, keep in mind inherent conflicts. For example, can they give you an unbiased answer to the question (if you ever ask) of “I’m not satisfied with my current work/startup? Should I look for a change?”

What if you disagree with your Mentors advice?

You have to rely on the strength of your relationship to be able to let them know if you disagree with their suggestions. You need to articulate extremely clear reasons as to why you disagree.

The difference between being rude and just disagreeing is your clearly thought-through reasons.

The right-kind of Mentor will not only understand, but also respect you for this and it will lead to a stronger bond going forward.

Reasons to move on/away from a mentor

If you cannot respect the person, you will never respect their mentorship.
Move on.

Is their advice only tactical or only strategic? 100% of either is useless.
Move on.

Don’t expect them to give you a to-do list, but do expect some actionable advice (I was once given a single to-do at the end of a 1-hour talk; to read a specific book — that is actionable and was very apt). Do they only speak about the 30,000 ft, macro view of life?
Move on.

Are their life experiences relevant to what you plan on doing? Or is having to give them context taking up a significant portion of your meeting?
Move on.

Are they unable to block out time for you? Are you unable to get their undivided attention for even a 30/60 minute mentoring session every couple of weeks or months?
Move on.

If you do decide to move on from a mentor, it needs to be done in a respectful manner. Explain your reasons and help them understand what exactly you were expecting. They may be able to course-correct and interact differently; even better, they could suggest the names of people who may be a better fit to mentor you.

Pay it forward. Become a mentor.

While it sounds a little premature to suggest that you also mentor someone, the thought is based on sound logic.

Primarily, a mentor is someone who has more experience than you do, and is in a similar field and was in a similar situation some years ago. So unless you are yourself a fresher in college or your job, you may have what it takes to be a mentor.

There will always be people who are 5–8 years younger than you and who are just starting their companies or careers. Everyone can use a solid mentor who has gone through what they are going through.

Remember, treat them with the same kind of respect and seriousness that you expect or received out of being a mentee.

Can I be of help?

I’ve started up in India more than once and dealt with more than a fair share of problems. I’ve also mostly come out with my skin intact and thought through about my experiences in detail.

Schedule permitting, I am more than happy to mentor first-time founders in Bangalore. Tweet me @vinit.


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