Why you should build an ARMY of mentors

No startup is an island.

Since independence is a pretty common entrepreneurial trait, going at it alone becomes a mistake that’s easy to fall into for a lot of startup founders.

This is a mistake.

Listen carefully. Developing an honest-to-goodness startup is a difficult chore. Most startups still fail within 5 years of being founded. You need all the help you can get. When you get started, one of things you should always remember is to develop your support structure. You need mentors.

Notice I used the plural form there. It’s easy to think that you have to go looking out for one mentor. Do more. Get an army of great ones. This ALWAYS pays off.

Expect not only to receive wisdom and sage advice from your mentors, but possibly even the following items:

1) friendship and emotional support

2) a large network of very useful contacts

3) possible clients

4) possible capital

In corporate, I’d had an image of a mentor – an older person in the same company who is typically an expert in what I am doing.

What I’ve discovered in startups is that there can be many different types of mentors. Here’s my list.

1) The Domain Mentor

This is the mentor you run to for advice with regards to the particular field your business is in.  Having established an HR solutions firm with STORM, it was important for me to have people to run to with regards to HR. I ran to Gina Hechanova and Bopeep Franco of Ateneo CORD for HR advice when STORM was growing. We even partnered for some projects were they needed a technology partner.

2) The Entrepreneurial Mentor

No matter how long you talk to your domain mentor, it would be really impossible for her to relate to what you are going through as a startup founder. Knowing what the business is about is vastly different from running the business. It would be quite advantageous for you to talk to someone who knows what exactly it takes to build a successful startup – who has felt what you feel, who can tell you “that’s normal” and “you should abandon that now.”

This was our challenge when Pao and I built STORM, we had no entrepreneurial mentors – so we had to go through everything through trial and error. This almost killed our firm many times. I have no doubts that if we could have networked with an entrepreneurial mentor early on, it would have been smoother sailing.

3) The Peer Mentor

Karen Yao is the founder of the HR Consulting firm Congruent Partnerships. She is my age and is an awesome HR practitioner and facilitator. Around once a month, we would have coffee and we would talk and exchange ideas about HR and startups. We usually exchange advice on stuff like hiring, office space and rent, the future of our respective firms, what the other would think about a new concept the other would like to introduce, and so much more. Karen is what I call a peer mentor – the direction of the mentorship is two-way, and we see each other as peers. I am lucky to have Karen to talk with because she functions as both a domain mentor and an entrepreneurial mentor – this always makes our talks so much more interesting.  And naturally, we have given paying projects to one another.

4) The Life Mentor (Or Life Coach)

So how will startup life affect your relationships with your family, friends, and loved ones? When does work become too much? How is your prayer life? How are you eating?

Taking the plunge and forming your own startup won’t really be a cure-all. Yes, it can make your professional life that much more rewarding. I am into the notion though, that a happy life is a balanced one. There are other aspects of life that you cannot take for granted: physical, emotional, social, spiritual. A poorly managed dimension can easily drag all the rest of the dimensions – so it’s very important you have someone in your corner whom you can talk to about not merely your startup, but how it relates to the rest of your life.

I am quite lucky in this regard because I married one of the wisest people I know.

5) Encouraging Friends

Doesn’t really fall into the “mentor” category, but does so in the “support structure” concept. I’d thought I’d might as well throw this in here.

Are some of your friends negativity-mongers?  You know, those people who always complain, who always see the glass half-empty, or will always point out the huge risk you are taking in going after your idea. Lots of these in corporate. (some are just plain negative and cannot help it, but some are crabs)

You are who you surround yourself with.

So be sure to surround yourself with people who encourage you, who will stand by you. Not only that, but also try to surround yourself with people who are less afraid of taking risks in their lives, people who are willing to put stuff on the line in going after what they want.

So there you go – different types of mentors for the startup founders. I purposely didn’t include here “formalized” mentors like the Board of Directors or Advisory Boards – this will be taken up in a future post.

Just some last things. Of course, I recommend you take initiative and ask people whom you respect if they are open to being your mentor. (you’d be surprised at how some people would just want to help) Just two pieces of advice:

1) Know if they’re a good guy or a bad guy

Doesn’t get any more basic than this. The main thing about being a mentor is not only the wisdom you will gain, but more importantly, that the mentor has a personal stake in your success. Remember that. A mentor wants to see you succeed.

You may know a number of entrepreneurs who are all about money. You know who I am talking about. The first thing this person would think of when they meet you is “how can this guy make me more money?” There are also arrogant ones who think they are God’s gift to the industry, or people who simply will not share anything with you “keep their edge.” Avoid these people like the plague. You, like most people, can probably smell them a mile away.

Go after good guys. Look at their backgrounds, see what type of work they’ve done and who they’ve associated with. Talk to people who’ve worked with them. You, like most people, can probably smell good guys a mile away as well.

2) Don’t force it

The big thing about the mentor-mentee relationships is that you should have a high degree of comfortability and compatibility: there should be chemistry, you should like one another. This is why a lot of the formal corporate mentor programs don’t work – it feels forced. So don’t force it.

It might not be a good idea to just email someone “Can you be my mentor?” Have coffee with the person first, get to know the person first. Check for rapport, check for chemistry.

Remember, you cannot afford to be an island. Surround yourself with great people you can turn to for advice, who will be there for you, and who want you to succeed.

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