A Guide to Finding a Mentor for Start-ups

Mentors guide, advise, support and act as sounding boards for you. The value of a mentor can be significant if you find the right one. But how do you know what a great one looks like and how do you actually get them to mentor you? Find out more here.

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Mentors guide, advise, support and act as sounding boards for you. The value of a mentor can be significant if you find the right one. But how do you know what a great one looks like and how do you actually get them to mentor you?

Unlike Advisors in start-up land, Mentors are there to guide you through your journey in a way that far extends just business. Here is a lovely quote from an anonymous figure on the internet:

"Many can advise, but few can mentor. That's because an adviser is one who directs. A mentor, on the other hand, guides. So, an adviser will direct you without regard to your specific personal situation, needs, or passions. A mentor will allow you--and even encourage you--to choose your own direction, offering guidance that does take into consideration your personal situation, needs, and passions. A mentor is often more analogous to a coach: True mentors know what motivates their mentees. An adviser is more like a director: Advisers may or may not know what motivates their advisees. This information is not relevant to this type of relationship, because the adviser simply provides the direction that the advisee "should" follow.”

In start-up land, Advisors usually have equity in a venture and offer advice based on a certain objective laid out by both the founder and advisor. A mentor on the other hand will usually not have an equity incentive and is doing it because they see something in the founder that piques their curiosity and interest in helping them.

Who are mentors?

To be a mentor is to teach or give advice or guidance to someone, such as a less experienced person. Mentors offer knowledge, insight, perspective, or wisdom that is helpful to another person in a relationship that goes beyond duty or obligation.

Depending on what you do personally or professionally, here are some questions you should ask yourself when thinking of potential mentors:

  • Are they recognized as effective leaders in their (or your) given field(s)?

  • Are they considered role models of character and values?

  • Do they have a perspective that differs from yours, but may also be insightful into what you are trying to achieve?

  • Do they have a history of positive relationships with a diverse scope of individuals?

  • Do they have a history of freely sharing experiences and insight with others?

  • Are they a trusted resource in organizations that they have been a part of?

  • Are they someone you feel you could trust and spend time with?

All these questions are paramount to finding a great mentor that is right for you, personally.

What are the benefits of having a mentor?

There are several benefits of being mentored by someone much more experienced than yourself. For one, they offer guidance and support where possible. They help develop you as a person or professional. They add a different perspective and can be a sounding board that challenges your own ideas and perspectives. In start-up land, Mentors are immensely valuable in learning from other people’s mistakes and what not to do.

Understandably, you want a mentor that can offer value that goes beyond just business but sometimes extends also into your personal circumstances. However, let’s set some precedents before we dive in.

This is not a one-way street

Having a mentor is not a one-way value exchange where you, the mentee, are getting all the value. Realising that potential mentors have limited time and time is precious is probably one of the most important things to keep in mind throughout this process. People want to help other people, however, people are limited with the amount of time they can give to someone else, especially if they are not getting much value in exchange. The best way to rectify this is to show value yourself. Perhaps it is something new that they might learn or some different perspective they might take away from you that adds value to them as well. You must show this potential mentor the value that you add as a mentee more than just, “I need guidance and advice”. Even if it is just emotional gain, there has to be a reason for your prospective mentor to want to mentor you over someone else.

Time is precious

Leapfrogging from the previous point, time is incredibly precious. Asking for too much time from a potential mentor is a no-go. This must be established between you both at the start so that you know what you are signing up for. Depending on both your circumstances, this could be a regular occurrence or a less occurrent affair.

Mentorship should be a time you both come together, discuss the good, the bad and the ugly and come out feeling charged, both mentally and intellectually.

What makes a great mentor?

Anyone can give advice, but what truly makes a great mentor? There are two forms of mentorship advice:

  1. Prescriptive

  2. Interrogative

Prescriptive mentorship is when the mentor tells you what they think and should do. Whereas, the latter is all about asking questions to the mentee.

Depending on your particular circumstances, one could be needed over the other. However, as an entrepreneur, having an interrogative mentor provides significantly more value. Here’s why:

  • Mentors who ask a lot of great, well-thought-out questions without giving their opinion are trying to help you become a better founder by getting you to question everything in an objective way.

  • They know that personal opinions should not affect a founder's decision-making.

  • They teach you how to make better decisions for your venture by yourself and think of problems with an open mind. In essence, they teach you how to think!

How to get them to mentor you

Think of how many people have approached (or are thinking of approaching) your prospective mentor for mentorship. What are you going to do that sets yourself apart from the rest that makes them go, "I want to mentor you".

Evana Lithgow, our resident talent coach, says that it's about selling and talking about your proposition to a prospective mentor. Pitching to them on where you are wanting to grow in and how your prospective mentor complements this growth and vision through their participation. Additionally, it's also about giving some hard thought and preparation beforehand on how this mentorship could work in the long run. Simply asking them to be a mentor upfront is most likely not going to work, but having a well-thought-out plan to how this engagement is going to work including an understanding of both parties' time commitment is a much more structured proposal.

Additionally, you want to bring your full authentic self in your approach to a prospective mentor and not only how they can add value to you and your venture, but also what they can learn and/or experience throughout this mentorship alongside you - essentially a win-win scenario.

To summarise

A mentor is valuable in all aspects of your professional and personal journey. Finding an interrogative-type mentor during your startup journey is the most valuable as they get you to think for yourself and question everything you do and decide. Ensuring that there is a value exchange in the mentorship process is paramount and understanding time commitments allow both you and your mentor to get the most out of each other.

Lastly, big shout out to the Hillfarrance team & Evana Lithgow, our fund talent coach, for giving their two cents on this piece!