Mentoring is an age-old practice of transferring knowledge and experience through personal relationships. Mentors have been present in all walks of life and all disciplines for thousands of years; in fact, the word “mentor” was inspired by the character of Mentor in Homer’s Odyssey.
But how many VCs actually mentor entrepreneurs?
In the venture capital industry, we hear a lot about the “hands-on operational guidance” VCs offer the CEOs of their portfolio firms. As the adage goes, in venture capital, you don’t just provide money, but also guidance. But while most VC firms claim to deliver hands-on guidance, I would argue we need to go further than that to deliver real one-on-one mentoring. The mentorship relationship is unique in that the mentor doesn’t just “give advice,” but is also part of personal trusted relationship between two people where questions, advice, knowledge and discussion flow back and forth openly. Entrepreneurs not only deserve this type of care and feeding, but can more effectively use this type of knowledge transfer to build their businesses—resulting in portfolio companies that make better business decisions and achieve greater success. Think of it this way: You often resent people who give you “advice,” but almost always respect and trust your mentor.
When I develop a relationship with an entrepreneur, I ask about their ideal vision for their company. Before I became a VC, I spent my career as an entrepreneur and CEO, and I understand a company will never be hugely successful unless you harness the passion of the founders, who then harness the passion of their people. I aim to get a sense for their driving vision behind the business and to make a personal connection with this passion. Then, and only then, can we begin to hammer out how to organize the company, start to make key business decisions and outline strategies to meet key objectives.
At Maveron, we believe that great investing starts and ends with building trusting entrepreneurial relationships and mentoring. We ourselves have our own mentors to whom we turn for advice and been-there-done-that guidance. And we also encourage our entrepreneurs, once they’ve “made it big,” to turn around and mentor newer entrepreneurs. This is a never-ending cycle of paying it forward.
Mentors provide three main benefits to entrepreneurs as they build their high-growth start-ups into successful companies.
1. Mentors open doors. A good mentor will introduce you to the right people to accelerate your business objectives.
2. Mentors are great coaches. Instead of “giving advice,” mentors encourage and coach, giving you an outside perspective and fresh eyes to a problem or challenge.
3. Mentors hold you accountable. Instead of “telling you what to do,” mentors help you set key objectives and then hold you accountable to executing against them.
If you’re an entrepreneur looking for mentoring from a current or potential venture investor, ask yourself if they have what it takes to commit to a mentoring relationship. Not everyone knows how to mentor—it’s a delicate balancing act of building mutual trust between two people. Here are qualities a great mentor provides:
1. Candor. Don’t look for a buddy or a friend, but instead an honest person with deep experience in your field who is open to building a relationship based on mutual respect and trust.
2. Competence. A great mentor is extremely good at what he or she does, and has deep knowledge of a specific area of expertise.
3. Experience. Have they done it before? Make sure your potential mentor has been through the trenches—whether that’s as a founder, CEO or in a strategic operational role—so you can learn from their experience and avoid pitfalls.
Entrepreneurs who have a mentor have a key advantage. If you can bounce ideas and concerns off a trusted source—someone who will always answer you calls, texts and emails—you’ve got a huge head start over go-it-alone competitors. Great venture investors offer more than advice and guidance; they provide mentorship.
As they say, advice is cheap, but mentorship is worth its weight in gold.