These days, everyone thinks he’s a mentor.
With accelerators, incubators and innovation events sprouting everywhere, there’s plenty of opportunity for seasoned entrepreneurs to pass on their knowledge to a new generation of startups. But according to the people who work with them, not every good entrepreneur makes a good mentor.
I (informally) polled leaders at a couple Boston incubators, as well as some of the entrepreneurs they work with, to see which qualities are valued most in a mentor. What they told me is that you might be a good startup mentor if you have these five qualities:
You’ve started a business before (and — even better — you’ve failed). First-time entrepreneurs place a high value on practical experience, and who better to help them avoid failing than someone who’s done it himself? Many healthcare-related startups need the most help with the business and marketing side of things, said William Brah, executive director of the Venture Development Center. “A lot of them need help making a business case — not a technological case — for their product,” he said, along with defining what their benchmarks should be.
You’re a little more confrontational than the average person … Another unanimous response from the people I talked to: Brutal honesty is important. Startup founders and CEOs are so invested in their ideas and caught up in the day-to-day work of their companies that they sometimes fail to see the big picture. They need mentors who can detach themselves emotionally and provide a gut check.
… but also a little more patient than the average person. Mentors should understand that teams don’t have to have the perfect solution right away, said Svetlana Dotsenko, who works with the Healthbox Boston team. They should also embrace the idea of listening and learning to the people they are mentoring. “Many of our mentors see this as a two-way relationship that’s honest and communicative,” she said.
You have a niche expertise within healthcare. This is especially critical for someone mentoring a health technology company with founders who may have come from outside the industry. A shifting regulatory environment and the ever-present B2B vs. B2C question poses challenges for young companies trying to refine their target audience and figure out who’s actually going to pay for their technology. Several startup founders told me that having someone who knows the market to help guide that process is invaluable.
You have 500+ connections on LinkedIn — but don’t share them with just anyone. Brah said the VDC companies find personal connections to potential investors to be one of the most important qualities of a mentor. But, at the same time, mentors shouldn’t be willing to share their contacts with everyone. Mentorship requires a certain level of commitment and confidence in a company’s ideas and founders, and that can be expressed by a mentor selectively sharing his most-prized contacts.