Supporting early-stage ventures

Do Alcoholics Anonymous and the Samaritans have something to tell us – about support for early-stage ventures?
Early-stage ventures have fast-evolving needs for support – in the form of advice, knowledge, expertise, information and contacts – help often found in fellow travellers (as in Alcoholics Anonymous), but also and more widely in mentors. But their help, highly valuable as it is, is difficult to manage if just the right help is to be successfully brought to bear at just the right moment. Various approaches to their management are used but none have been as assiduous as, for example, those of the Samaritans. A new programme, just launching, is experimenting with a higher level of prior briefing, co-ordination, and review.

If learning the right questions and finding good answers are key aspects of new ventures, the mere availability of almost limitless information that is the case to-day is not enough.
Participants in innovation communities often cite the (incidental) help of others with whom they are located, who may be a bit further forward with their project than they are, and can speak from their experience; as they also cite people with all sorts of knowledge, expertise and experience, especially those who have ‘done it before’. Managing comings-together is an important role, and the kitchen is an important location for them. Level39 in Canary Wharf, London sounds the Cookie Bell every day at 3pm, upon which everyone has to come out of their office and say hello to someone they have never met before!
YCombinator’s approach is regular dinners – at which all participants have to talk about their progress. Watershed Bristol requires its participants to meet for lunch on Fridays and report similarly about their progress etc; and their comments are edited and later circulated to everyone on the intranet.
The Alcoholics Anonymous programme has some similarities: in essence it consists in the provision of a sponsor, a more experienced person on the road to recovery, and meetings that ensure regular contact with those who are in similar circumstances, at which an open discussion of your success (or failure) is required – together with a re-commitment to your objectives, and a discussion about how those objectives can be achieved both now and to-morrow.
While entrepreneurs don’t know what they don’t know (nor often what they need to know), mentors play crucial roles, not least in forging links, including with those who do know. Although mentoring is accepted as a collection of different things, the adoption of mentoring varies widely. Mentoring is widely used in life-changing organisations like The Prince’s Trust and the Probation Service; and a Government report claims that the survival rate for new businesses is five times greater when they have the support of mentors.
However some hatcheries do not offer mentors, and many have few mentors; yet virtually all Accelerator programmes provide mentors, some of them in quantity. (The Bethnal Green Ventures Accelerator did not offer mentoring in its earliest programme, but has always done so since.) One new Accelerator programme is doing without mentors – on the grounds that they give conflicting advice. A University-based public mentoring programme has bemoaned the fact that its mentees all too often fail to renew their first contact with a mentor. Participants in the early stages of programmes often find their contact with mentors quite bruising. And the ethos of mentoring is rooted in the one-to-one form of relationship – where other forms might also have their moments.
But even with the greatest care, mentors are not easy to select, nor to match up; they seem sometimes not to understand how best to help, and their contributions can be unco-ordinated. And, unpaid as they are, their help is difficult to organise and to manage effectively. Moreover the particular help that is needed is not always available.
Mentors are usually identified and invited to participate by leaders; and the relationship is usually launched with some form of speed-dating with mentors; following which both participants and mentors identify those whom they would like to meet again.
Arrangements are also made for participants to make appointments with those mentors who will be visiting at certain times; and they can also make arrangements with the same mentors for subsequent meetings. Telefonica’s Wayra Lab encourages teams to establish informal boards.
The Samaritans (surely the ultimate mentors) are highly selective about those whom they recruit, have a substantial induction programme for them, provide mentors during their initial period, pro-active supervisors for each shift, regular refreshers, and social events. And they provide careful supervision of mentors for longer term clients.
Startupbootcamp’s Fintech. just launching, an Accelerator for SMEs, has taken pains to ensure that the mentors know one another and that they understand their roles – running a Mentor Fest, a full Mentor Day and regular Monday meetings for mentors.

(1) See ‘What do participants in Accelerators value most?’ http://wp.me/p3beJt-7H
(2) See also the Belgian Plato programme for SMEs (http://wp.me/p3beJt-H)

John Whatmore
July 2014
The Centre for Leadership in Creativity
http://johnwhatmore.com

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