Entrepreneurs: Why is finding the right mentor so critical, and so hard?


Mentor guides Telemachus

One of the livelier debates during 2014 was the discussion thread on the British Library UK Entrepreneur Network about whether a mentor or funding is more important to an early phase entrepreneur. Given the near obsession we entrepreneurs place on getting funding and the intricacies and mating rituals involved, this seemed like an open and shut case: Most entrepreneurs would probably take the money.

Yet, the debate surprisingly swayed quite the other way, with a consensus emerging amongst both experienced entrepreneurs and mentors about the critical importance of finding a good mentor early on; and, before the founder team were confronted with both the opportunity and risks associated with funding deals.

This seemed a surprising outcome and one that encouraged me. This debate showed an increasing recognition that start ups are not only engines for technological and financial growth, they are human organizations which are highly sensitive to the choices the founders make as people; and the extent to which founders learn to work productively together.

For instance, a funding opportunity involving cash for equity can fragment otherwise productive start up team, who have not had the time, inclination or support to have a decent conversation about what the implications might be, both for the company and for each individual founder. Another example might be the impact the role of the angel has on both the strategic direction of the company and the dynamics within the founder group. Anyone of the founders might feel alienated from the decisions being reached and possibly the way decisions are now being taken.

In other words, early phase start up teams would be well advised to have a mentoring relationship in place so that they can build a more robust partnership prior to injecting cash and before the influence of external investors is felt.

This, however, seems to be easier said than done. One of the most common complaints I hear from entrepreneurs is that finding a mentor with the right mix of experience and personality fit is hard enough. Developing and accessing the mentor over any reasonable period of time can be nigh on impossible, even in major entrepreneurial hubs such as London, Berlin or Hong Kong. Good mentors are scare and they get very busy.

This is true even for entrepreneurs in a prestigious accelerator programme or University Enterprise Hub. Even when “star” mentors are available, their time might be very limited and they may not have the contextual knowledge that is right for your specific business. They might often be giving their time pro bono; which is good of them, but sometimes leads to patchy service delivery.

I think this sense of scarcity arises in part because we have developed a very narrow perspective of what an entrepreneurial mentor looks like. Unquestionably, most entrepreneurs want a mentor who has been there and done it. In other words, an entrepreneur who has built a sustainable company or managed a successful exit. In one sense, it is obvious that someone with a successful track record has opportunities to share war stories and can help in avoiding the reinvention of the wheel.

However, many successful entrepreneurs find mentoring difficult, even when they enjoy it. Entrepreneurs can often develop a very directive and hands on style of leadership. This might work fine when getting a start up underway, but it might limit there effectiveness when trying to transfer there knowledge to others. This is particularly problematic when the mentor’s own domain know how is different from the entrepreneur being mentored (“the mentee’). Founding a retail e-commerce won’t make you an expert for a science-based University spin off. If you also lack skill in coaching others, you might not be the right mentor no matter how big your exit.

The reality is that many entrepreneurs-turned-mentors do not have psychological training; nor the professional service skills to work with clients, such as on needs assessment and problem definition. They may have little or no knowledge of group dynamics. As a result, their advice too often becomes highly generic and lapses into a “telling” style that disrupts the natural learning process of a founder group.

Another problem that entrepreneurs commonly cite is that running a start up is like being on a football pitch, where quick decisions and rapid tactical changes are needed. Even the best mentors cannot always be on tap to talk through a pivotal decision. Running a start up involves many real-time decisions. The challenge is how to apply mentoring so that it can be more time-based and accessible to hard pressed entrepreneurs.

Finally, many of the decisions that entrepreneurs make about their business are really life decisions, based on values, motivations and goals. These are highly personal and it is difficult for another person to direct the entrepreneur as to what is right or wrong. Engaging with entrepreneurs around these life issues often requires professional skill, highly attuned listening and deep questioning. In short, by holding on to a narrow definition of what a mentor is and what they do, we might limit entrepreneurs from finding a mentor that is right for them.

For instance, there is a whole body of professional coaches who are often expert in helping clients with complex life decisions (“should I stay the course or sell the business?”). Many of these coaches have expertise in group dynamics that can help founder teams form compatible and cohesive teams. Many professional coaches are themselves entrepreneurs, in the sense that they set up and run firms of coaches. They might think and act in highly entrepreneurial ways. Professional coaches will often have experience in bigger companies, such as business planning, HR practices or organization, which can be invaluable to entrepreneurs looking to professional and organise their businesses more effectively. Professional coaches are often trained to work across a broader field of issues and client concerns.

At the same time, professional coaches often charge fees that are out of reach of many smaller start ups. Professional coaches might charge £150-£550 per hour! Bigger companies can fund this, but Start Ups and SMEs this just unrealistic.

But there are things that can be done.

In the mid to long term, I think entrepreneurs entering accelerators, incubators and enterprise hubs, need to be more demanding and inquisitive about the mentors they are assigned to work with. Yes, it might be great to work with a seasoned entrepreneur working on a gratis basis; but it might be equally necessary for your venture to work with an expert coach who can identify and respond to your underlying and long term needs; and is contracted to respond to you within reasonable time frames.

I think angel investors need to start considering funding professional coaching for the start up team, if only to mitigate their risk.  This happens much more in Silicon Valley than in Europe.

But let’s assume that these possibilities represent something of an ideal, which is still a way off from becoming common.

So what else can be done? At Pivomo, we have given a lot of thought to this.

  • We have developed an expert app that enables entrepreneurs to access mentoring insights for use either for individual reflection; or to support discussions within founder teams; or simply to enhance the conversations you do have with your own mentor.
  • We are building a global team of entrepreneurial mentor-coaches who have the professional skills to coach groups of entrepreneurs, and foster peer-to-peer learning.
  • We specialize in providing webinar based mentoring and coaching, enable you to connect with the best mentors around the world, and to communities of entrepreneurs who are traveling along similar journeys to you.

In other words, at Pivomo we want to disrupt the way entrepreneurial mentoring is delivered.

  • We want to underpin mentoring with professional and research based tools
  • We want to make mentoring accessible in real time, using web and mobile applications combined with social media
  • We want to make finding a mentor a realistic prospect wherever you are located on the planet.

Some of this functionality is available right now. Some of these things we are working furiously to build. Work with us. Join us. And help make finding the right mentor a whole lot easier for everybody.