One of the key elements to developing a new startup venture is getting one or more mentors. The level of interaction can go from occasional advice to close mentoring on a weekly basis. So why are mentors so important for early-stage entrepreneurs?
1. Taking a glimpse “around the block”
Many startups come from the minds of younger people particularly in the technology space and, although enthusiasm is a great thing, there is no doubt that experience counts for a lot. Pretty much all startup accelerator programs have a mentorship element, as do most university-backed entrepreneurship schemes. Having the advice of someone who has been “around the block” is always useful to a new venture.
2. Opening doors
Perhaps one of the most vital elements of mentorship for early stage ventures is the ability of the mentor to open doors for the new company. Getting in the door with senior executives of larger companies or government can be difficult particularly for younger entrepreneurs, and having a mentor successfully lobby for entrepreneurs to get that first all-important meeting is often vital. A good mentor should be able to help entrepreneurs get past that early barrier.
3. Specific advice
Often I use other mentors other than myself when it comes to particular areas of competence, areas where I would know information but would by no means be an expert. Areas such as legal, accounting or intellectual property are areas where mentors with that particular background can be very helpful to stop entrepreneurs from making mistakes that may take months or years to discover.
4. “Have you ever thought about doing…?”
When I practiced strategy, I would also recommend that the organization use external advisory groups during their deliberations. Having an external “view” enables a good mentor to ask difficult questions about the business plan and in particular elements such as the mission, objectives and ideas that perhaps were overlooked by the entrepreneur. In my own recent mentoring sessions, I have spent a lot of time looking at business models with relevance to areas such as target market segmentation, competitive advantage and value proposition.
5. “Why are you doing…?”
The other side to the coin of asking why isn’t a company looking at a particular segment or solution is to ask why the new company is proposing to do what it is suggesting in the first place. Many times the sheer enthusiasm of doing a new venture can blind entrepreneurs to obvious flaws in the business plan, whether it is a feature/benefit that the customers don’t want or won’t pay for at that price point (the $10,000 mouse trap if you will) or chasing a segment where there are no barriers to entry. I have seen startups use mentors to walk through some of the frameworks that are helpful to startups, such as the Business Model Canvas or the KAUST-developed TechNav technology commercialization roadmap, very successfully.
Overall, the application of the right set of mentors, and often it may be more than one, is vital to the speedy development of a new venture. There are many potential avenues of attracting these people, whether through a university entrepreneurship or innovation center such as what we have in KAUST, one of the incubators in the Kingdom such as Badir or just a friendly business person who wants to help.
Gordon McConnell is head of the KAUST Entrepreneurship Center. He has grown the activities of the center to include a wide range of teaching and learning programs including the Hikma IP accelerator and the REVelate corporate innovation program. Prior to KAUST, he held several management positions in academia, nonprofits and industry, and has developed and taught entrepreneurship and management programs in a number of universities.