Homer (not Simpson)
The word 'mentor' derives from an Ancient Greek verb μηνύω, or menio, which means 'to make known, declare or indicate'. From this verb a proper noun μηνύτωρ, or menitor, was extrapolated, meaning one who makes something known. Its original meaning was to 'make known' in terms of to denounce or betray, but in the Odyssey, the poet Homer portrayed Mentor as a benign character.
Mentoring since that mythological time has developed into an accepted strategy by which the older, or more experienced, help to educate and promote those younger or less experienced than themselves. In the academic and business worlds, this relationship is one which has developed into a more formal framework, whereas in the literary and fictional world it takes the form of a father-figure or trusted advisor.
Give and Take
Many startup companies can find a mentoring relationship useful, if they achieve the right fit with a mentor who understands exactly what the mentee's business sector is and how best to approach it to promote their success. For a mentor, the relationship can fulfill an altruistic need to convey their wisdom for the benefit of those less knowledgeable, and to hand down a bit of their own legacy. The key concept, though, is finding the right fit, when both sides are slightly uncertain of their actual goals and intentions. Mentoring should be a long-term and close relationship, where the mentor feels pride in the achievements of the mentee, and the mentee feels motivated and uplifted by the potential that they can unlock with the mentor's help.
In a Perfect World
A regular mentorship should ideally take the form of scheduled meetings which both sides look forward to with excitement, and should result in a demonstrable improvement in the startup's performance. In practice, though, it's more likely that startup founders will be inspired by a mentor's ideas at the beginning of the relationship, which might then dwindle to infrequent meetings and divergence from the mentor's advice – once the founders feel that they know what they're doing. Successful entrepreneurs often mention people whom they've found inspirational, but this tends to be more of a generalization than a formative relationship.
Who and What?
Valuable mentors can be found in both the practical and theoretical field, so that you can gain benefit from knowledgeable academics as well as those who've already made their mark in business. Some prerequisites are necessary, however.
- They must inspire you in some way, in theoretical knowledge, practical success or just plain charisma.
- Your personalities must click, so that both sides enjoy the relationship and respect each other's capabilities.
- They should demonstrate understanding of your business needs and want to see you flourish.
- You should feel that the mentor has no ulterior motive.
- Don't force it, or accept second best. If it doesn't feel right, then it isn't.
Mentoring is a Skill
Mentoring is a skill that not everyone acquires. Just because a person has had success of their own, doesn't necessarily mean that they can transmit their techniques to you. Indeed, many successful entrepreneurs are not mentor material, because they are centered in their own model and may not have the flexibility to think outside the box. A mentor is not someone who tells you what to do, but someone who should guide you to seeing what questions to ask, what solutions might be viable, and to discuss with you how to approach problem-solving.
As a founder, the last thing you want is another leader. What you need is an inspirational team member, who won't seek to override your authority or disrupt your company hierarchies. A mentor should be able to assess the existing circumstances, which can be particularly difficult in today's technological environment, where relevant experience might be scarce. As a successful entrepreneur, they'll also have contacts, and may help you connect to valuable or supportive networks.
The internet has made society more of an open source environment, where we're not so afraid to share. Some universities (notably MIT with its Venture Mentoring Service) and volunteer initiatives such as Score already recognize the value of a mentoring relationship, and platforms are beginning to spring up where mentors and mentees can come together for their mutual benefit. Using such a service might help to fill the gap between formal training programs and what your particular startup needs, in terms of advice and encouragement. Mentors can contribute industry knowledge and financial expertise, and at the same time can themselves learn about newer business practices and what it's like to be a startup in today's economic climate.
Too Many Cooks?
Some founders worry that adding a mentor into the already complex mix of startup requirements could cause confusion. If your business has more than one founder, or input from directors, officers and shareholders, unnecessary conflict could arise from delivering multiple responses to strategic challenges. There may be no 'right' answer, and having too many cooks could delay delivery of a coherent policy, especially if all their ideas are valid.
On the other hand, if you feel that you might be missing something, that there should be a more obvious and achievable strategy to get where you want to go, then a mentorship program could be useful. There are many more avenues to explore in the 21st century business environment, and help is always at hand. You may well find someone who provides a reliable sounding board, an alternative opinion, and even just emotional support when the going gets tough.