Mentors are a key part of startup life. Having the right startup mentor – and using them correctly – could be the difference between landing a big sale or round of investment and closing your company down after 12 months of going nowhere.
At Oxygen Startups we have a big focus on mentorship on all of our startup programmes and we constantly see startups using mentors incorrectly.
A mentor session is not an opportunity to pitch your business and ask, “Is this a good idea?”. It’s a chance to sit with an experienced and knowledgeable person and ask them specific questions about their skill set that can help you and your startup overcome challenges.
Below are 5 ways to prepare and use mentors.
1. Research your mentor
If you are attending a good event, the list of mentors will be on the event page or will be sent to you before the event. Spend time researching the mentors who will be present at the event.
Key information to find out:
● Domain expertise: do they have experience in your startup domain?
● Skill expertise: do they have a specific skill set? For example, a Sales Manager at IBM can tell you a lot about selling to enterprise and understanding a sales cycle. Don’t write people off because they don’t work for Google.
● Network: do they have access to people or companies that you want introductions to? Use Linkedin to find out who they are connected to. As well as their professional experience use Twitter and blogs to find out what they’re interested in.
2. Pick 3 key outcomes you want from the mentor session
Use your research to be realistic on these outcomes. Outcomes could include:
● A clear understanding of an investor’s investment strategy and how they vet teams
● An answer to a common sticking point in a sales conversation
● An introduction to a key person as a possible customer
● Feedback on your user sign up process from a UX expert
● Feedback on your idea if the mentor is a potential customer or an expert in the industry within which you operate
3. Prepare your mentor pitch
All mentors need to know what your idea is but you only have a short period of time to hit your key outcomes. Prepare a company overview that will take you 20% of your mentor time to explain. Use the remaining 80% of your time to ask mentor specific questions and hit your outcomes. For example, a 30 minute mentor session should have 6 minutes of company overview and 24 minutes of valuable mentor Q&A.
In your company overview, you should include:
● What your startup does
● Who is in your team
● What have you done so far
● What do you want out of this session / what problems are you facing as a startup that this mentor may be able to help with
Once this is complete, ask if there are any questions or clarification required and then proceed to go through the questions and conversations required to get your outcomes.
If mentors don’t understand your idea or pitch in 6 minutes then focus on how you can improve your pitch. Ask the mentor what is stopping them from understanding the idea. 99% of the time it will be the way you’re explaining it that’s the issue.
4. Give mentor actions IF they’re interested in you
Once the meeting has come to a close ask the mentors to do tasks for you. Don’t force this point but if a mentor has expressed interest and shown enthusiasm then follow that up and ask them to continue helping you.
These will be mostly around introductions to other relevant people that can help you or a promise to send you further information on similar products they know, or information on a certain skills, e.g. a playbook on how to increase your page ranking.
At the end of the meeting, summarise the tasks for the mentor and ask them how long it will take them to do it and when is an acceptable time to chase.
5. Follow up with them
As a basic requirement email every mentor a thank you note and add them on Linkedin.
If the mentor has offered to help by making an introduction they haven’t got round to, give them a nudge. Mentors are often extremely busy and mentor a number of other people, they won’t mind you sending a reminder email after a few days.
To wrap up
Mentors give up their time free of charge to support other entrepreneurs and startups. Don’t turn your mentor meeting into a boring interview where you ask the mentor to do things for you. Wrap the above into a conversation and allow the mentor to go off track and talk about themselves, but ultimately your job is to leave that meeting with the outcomes you went in to the meeting with.
Finally, mentors are working on projects too, ask how you can help them in return.