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Why Start-Ups Need Mentors

Posted by on June 24, 2015

Should your start-up hire a mentor?I first “landed” in Silicon Valley in 1998, at the beginning of the first bubble. I use the word “landed” literally, as I had just completed nearly ten years of running media, information, and news companies overseas, across Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, including four years on Mainland China.

My colleagues, employees, and I had accomplished some really cool things during that time, including setting up a private, subscription news service with daily input from OPEC, and some of China’s first internet sites.

I moved to California as I thought my “global experience” might be of benefit to companies that were part of the WORLD wide web. A slight misjudgment, perhaps, timing-wise.

Nevertheless, I was successful in gaining assignments, hired by investors and Vcs to help along start-ups – led primarily by people in their early 20s who had just been handed checks for millions of dollars and were a little unsteady as to “what comes next.”

I was largely overpaid and underutilized.

Since the great majority of these young entrepreneurs didn’t know what the “next step” was, unfortunately they often didn’t know what the ‘first step” was. So I’d get tasked with important decisions like “you know those big phone thingies that are supposed to be in the lobby and you can direct calls around the office? Where do you get those?”

Check. And I look like a genius.

Ostensibly, the venture firms should have been able to advise their new clients, but most of the principals of Vcs hadn’t run companies, either. It was easier to hire someone like me, and when you hire an outsider, of course, you also have someone to blame when the proverbial shit hits the fan.

As the lead at a start-up, you need to surround yourself with people smarter than you, people that you can rely on for candor and advice. These should not be close friends or family members.

I’m also not terribly enthused about many “consultant/mentors” you might meet at local networking events; most likely, they are really looking for a job.

I’m a big advocate of calling on experts through SCORE, part of the US Small Business Administration. SCORE stands for “Service Corps of Retired Executives.” Through SCOREs hundreds of chapters across the US, you can access the gray matter of thousands upon thousands of volunteer mentors, many with amazing past career successes.

SCORE also offers free workshops, on and off-line as well as free access to business tools. Find the closest SCORE chapter with this tool.

By working with a SCORE volunteer, you can available yourself of a pool comprised of literally thousands of years of cumulative experience.

Finding a volunteer mentor who is hyper local can also tremendously boost your networking ability when contemplating new rounds of financing or strategic opportunities.

Your potential clients and customers can be a good source of advice, as well, but don’t over think it.

In other words, when choosing a mentor, just as when you hire, find the smartest people you are able, ask a zillion questions, and most importantly, listen.

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