5 Ace Mentors – you may need all of them

5 Ace Mentors – you may need all of them

If the benefits of mentoring are only really appreciated after the experience, the mentors in this series tell us about the special contributions they have made to their mentees.

No 1 Concept development: coming up with something for which there is a real need and that is achievable, marketable and fundable. Jackie Young – in Life Sciences

No2 Strategy and management: determining objectives; getting there; and making and managing the team. JMD – in Fintech.

No 3 Technical: designing, creating and delivering the product/service. Jo Rabin – in Technologies.

No 4 Marketing and sales: attracting users, buyers, customers. Andrew Grant – in modelling.

No 5 Finance: managing the funds. Anon

 No 6 Mentor and support Manager –helping to identify issues and provide mentors; and running events – Thibaut Rouquette – Startupbootcamp

 

‘Mentor Managers’ can work miracles for startups

Above all else, early-stage ventures need their hands holding in their new adventures, but they have no idea about whose hands to hold. Mentor Managers can help them by finding experienced and expert mentors.

Their extensive network of supporters is one of the most distinctive features of Accelerators. Their early-stage ventures have fast-changing needs for support – in terms of knowledge, expertise, advice and relationships; and keeping up with these changes and introducing people with appropriate contributions is a job for which the programme leader is often the best placed person, but he can seldom give it enough time.

One Accelerator has used a leading intermediary as their ‘mentor manager’. Once a week he would talk briefly to each team, on the first occasion to all of the team together, then each week to a different member, and ask:

What is your current ‘pain point’?

What are you currently struggling with?

to which he would add his own experienced perceptions. The CTO of one team was having trouble in managing a growing team: he was an expert in technology but managing people was a different story.

‘Validating a financial product is not as easy as going into the street and conducting a survey: you need specific experts! This team was having trouble in finding and getting in touch with a decision-maker within a large African Bank who would be a specialist in micro-credit in two specific sub-Saharan countries.’

As an intermediary, his task was then to find someone who would be able to help the team with their specific issues. There was a very good chance, he said, of doing so from within his and the Accelerator’s own extensive data-bases. With some two hundred previous startups in the latter’s data-base, within a week that CTO had meetings with numerous experts on the subject and gained tremendous confidence.

If these sources did not identify a good contact, his second line of attack was to search Google and LinkedIn by using key words, for someone with whom there could be some kind of link – with their company, their skills, their country and their activities (eg they had spoken on the topic at a recent conference).

He would contact them by e-mail, hope to spark an interest in the project, invite them just to have a 10-minute phone call with the team, then to Skype and perhaps meet.                                                                                                On one occasion he searched the main VC, Tech and banking conferences in two countries, identified three people who might help a startup, and within a week had arranged Skype calls to two of them.

He brings to Startupbootcamp his experience when Up Global held Startup Weekends in some 270 cities in one single week last November.

See also:

I am a fly on the wall at an Accelerator’s Mentor Day

When the participants had an opportunity to meet the mentors at the beginning of a recent Accelerator programme, my encounters with the latter revealed five different mentor roles. http://wp.me/p3beJt-8N

 

No 6 ‘Mentor Managers’ can work miracles for startups

Above all else, early-stage ventures need their hands holding in their new adventures, but they have no idea about whose hands to hold. Mentor Managers can help them by finding experienced and expert mentors.

Their extensive network of supporters is one of the most distinctive features of Accelerators. Their early-stage ventures have fast-changing needs for support – in terms of knowledge, expertise, advice and relationships; and keeping up with these changes and introducing people with appropriate contributions is a job for which the programme leader is often the best placed person, but he can seldom give it enough time.

One Accelerator has used a leading intermediary as their ‘mentor manager’. Once a week he would talk briefly to each team, on the first occasion to all of the team together, then each week to a different member, and ask:

What is your current ‘pain point’?

What are you currently struggling with?

to which he would add his own experienced perceptions. The CTO of one team was having trouble in managing a growing team: he was an expert in technology but managing people was a different story.

‘Validating a financial product is not as easy as going into the street and conducting a survey: you need specific experts! This team was having trouble in finding and getting in touch with a decision-maker within a large African Bank who would be a specialist in micro-credit in two specific sub-Saharan countries.’

As an intermediary, his task was then to find someone who would be able to help the team with their specific issues. There was a very good chance, he said, of doing so from within his and the Accelerator’s own extensive data-bases. With some two hundred previous startups in the latter’s data-base, within a week that CTO had meetings with numerous experts on the subject and gained tremendous confidence.

If these sources did not identify a good contact, his second line of attack was to search Google and LinkedIn by using key words, for someone with whom there could be some kind of link – with their company, their skills, their country and their activities (eg they had spoken on the topic at a recent conference).

He would contact them by e-mail, hope to spark an interest in the project, invite them just to have a 10-minute phone call with the team, then to Skype and perhaps meet.                                                                        On one occasion he searched the main VC, Tech and banking conferences in two countries, identified three people who might help a startup, and within a week had arranged Skype calls to two of them.

He brings to Startupbootcamp his experience when Up Global held Startup Weekends in some 270 cities in one single week last November.

No 5 A Mentor for finance – and his experiences

Thinking early on about future funding needs; identifying and understanding investors; and keeping track of the finances.

“I worked with a cohort of startups in social enterprise, most of whose ideas had stemmed from their own experiences. They had been funded so far with small grants from relevant charities. I found myself repeatedly asking how they might hope to fund their enterprise at the culmination of their 12-week Accelerator programme. That would get them to focus on how the enterprise might be developed so that it would later meet the criteria of what would often be another grant-making organisation.

Although ‘Demo Day’ – when startups pitch their business to funders and to the startup community – marks the culmination of these Accelerator programmes, investors take time to evaluate the businesses in which they might invest and I stress that identifying potential investors and making their acquaintance early on is important. (Wayra Lab, Telefonica’s Accelerator requires that one of the three mentors that it attaches at the outset to its new businesses be an investor.)

I stress that Investors look for an experienced, successful founder, a compelling mission and a big opportunity, and that they will seldom invest on the basis of no more than a business plan: early-stage customers, a working product and an idea of how you get a product-market fit in this round of funding are almost essential requirements. And having good partners (and mentors) is increasingly seen as of added value.

A friend of mine with experience of several startups and a hi-tech background had won a grant of £100k from Innovate UK to develop a prototype for a well recognised market, and now sought funds for its manufacture. He used the website Kickstarter that enabled him to identify and make contact with potential users, get feed-back about his prototype and offer them the product at a future date – in return for payment now (from which he raised almost another £100k.) He anticipated that he could then sell a small share in his company to investors that would enable him to extend his product range and add to the value of his company. [Access to mentors, coaches and advisers is now available to grant winners free of charge via the Business Growth Service.]

I can introduce startups to Angel networks (which can also be reached through the UK Business Angels Association), to the Angel Co-funding Scheme, and to the Business Growth Fund which also categorises funders by industry, stage etc. (Trade sales/investments/options are frequently overlooked.) I emphasise the kind of returns that Angels seek and I stress that they are attracted if there is a clear path to the next round of funding, and are wary of businesses that may take a significant time to reach the next funding round’s benchmarks. I stress that negotiations will always take time; and I am able to help identify gaps in their pitches.

I have so far discouraged anyone from using crowdfunding websites (though they are evolving fast), because they are difficult to evaluate, and some require that you reach your target to win funding. There are too many dangers in determining your pitch; you will not necessarily get the help of an investor who has ‘been there before’; and you are likely to have to be dealing with a number of small shareholders.

And I take some responsibility for ensuring that a team is constantly aware of revenues, margins, costs, expenditures, cash flows, free funds etc.”

 

No 4 Supporting the commercial side

He sees his main role as determinedly focusing on and asserting the commercial essentials in which the business has to work, underlining customer constraints (they are mostly corporates) and eliciting their needs; and as opening doors and finding and developing customers, overseeing contractual arrangements and customer relationships.

He was introduced to the company by the Business arm of UCL and has contributed to it in several ways and has been named its chair – for which he gets little remuneration but was later granted a small equity participation. He now gives around 25% of his time to the company because he says: ‘there is so much to do and no one to do it’!

The business is a university spin-out and offers techniques for optimisingbusiness efficiency solutions in vehicle routing, staff-scheduling and telecoms network planning, based on mathematical models and algorithms.

He sought always to get the full picture and saw himself as the person who stood back and took into account the full implications of things while others were immersed in product development and delivery. He doesn’t have the programming skills of the team who have deep specialisms in specific applications; but his marketing and IT background and senior experience in BT add importantly to the business’s credibility.

He saw himself as structuring (encounters), clarifying, learning to articulate and to garner product and client benefits, both monetary benefits and knowledge transfer benefits; and helping to understand underlying motivations.

He saw his overall objective as helping the business to reach defined milestones along its way to realising its full potential. He is highly positive – an ‘evangelist’, a grafter and enthusiast, and tends to see everything in terms of learning opportunities.

As the success but modest penetration of the Business Growth Service suggests, mentoring has potential that has hardly been tapped yet; it needs a giant boost.

 

No 3 I meet Accelerator Wayra Lab’s ‘Chief Technology Officer-in-residence’

For early-stage ventures, mentors are fairly common, entrepreneurs-in-residence rather less common, and CTOs-in-residence rare birds. He advises on the scope, requirements, costs and risks of alternative approaches – especially in the early stages of young businesses.

 As CTO-in-residence at Wayra Lab, Jo Rabin mentors the 24 startups/SMEs there over the course of their 10-month programme, by initially meeting all of them, and then responding to the teams’ summonses or needs. He devotes one day a week during the first month of this programme, when he is in the greatest demand, and then two days a month for the rest of the programme.

He helps team to take the right decisions on the technologies that form an essential part of their business. Budding entrepreneurs, he says, often need but seriously lack the IT experience that is often an essential component of their business’s development. For those that are developing IT, he will review their options and advise on the scope, requirements, costs and risks of their alternatives; for those who are marketing a product in which IT is embedded, he will usually be responding to their specific issues.

He is highly valued – for his substantial experience of different technologies and breadth and depth of knowledge, and for his network of contacts, all of which he draws on for businesses at different stages of development, and for different members of each team – with their different values and relationships.

According to colleagues at Wayra Lab, he had devoted a whole week-end to rescuing a team whose developers had abandoned ship and which had no clarity about its strategy, helping them to take the right decisions about the technology involved.

He is a qualified engineer, and is above all a practitioner. He has always worked in organisations that were at the leading edge of IT development, and he now heads up a group of engineers in a small engineering business, and he has been involved in half-a-dozen startups. Ten years ago, he started Mobile Monday, a monthly meetup for people involved in mobile technology; and over the last three years he has run five innovate-style learning programmes about mobile technology (each of ten weeks duration, two evenings a week) for UCL, and now held at UCL’s IdeaLondon incubator.

His is a mind of many dimensions. He has seen the development in the past of many leading-edge innovations in IT; and though sceptical about innovation for its own sake, he holds clear views about its future – as especially in terms of mobile and the Internet of Things. As with all engineers, he says, he thinks both in terms of the macro and the micro, and the successful integration of the two. And he sees things in terms of understanding patterns and what makes them harmonious, and applies that thinking to the teams he meets (which he explained to me in terms of Bach’s fugues.)

He likes working with early-stage businesses because their members are young, bright, quick, passionate and determined; and they are responsive. And he enjoys his current portfolio of different roles in different contexts – which seem to support one another.

 

 No 2 Regular reviews of strategy and management – from an independent viewpoint

An evident contributor, likeable and enthusiastic, he brought a life-time’s experience of businesses (he recently retired as a Director of a major UK bank), and an effervescent clarity to issues that interested him.

He would ensure that there was a regular review system; he encouraged ‘plan B’ thinking; he was always a ready sounding board; as he was a difficult tank to stop when he thought change was needed.

He picked four turning points to which he had (or in one case had not) recently contributed.

I eventually persuaded a team of 30-year old young Turks based in Shoreditch whose finance man aged 50 lived miles away and had other interests, to let him go. Though he had some special assets, cash was becoming an issue, and other needs were being met only tardily. I gained the support of other Directors, and the separation was done elegantly.

  • Missed key milestones was the signal for me to try and persuade one company that they needed to woo not just one major customer, but several others. I had to hammer away at the issue, and I had no emotional attachment to the first strategy.
  • It took me four months and the occurrence of a sharply relevant Court case in Japan for me to persuade ‘African Exchanges’ (not its real name) to change its name as the company found itself increasingly drawn into trading in other currencies.
  • At a first meeting with one company, none of my thoughts and ideas went deeper than to get a mild brush-off. Both parties are looking for an instant link – that will suggest a fertile union. Like many young companies, they seemed dead-set on their plans; and perhaps they did not understand what they might get out of a mentor.

‘As a Startup, this is the biggest thing they have ever done, and they are of course passionate and determined about it. So to lose clarity is unsurprising. Moreover, consensus in the team is a vital factor, so there is also a danger of Groupthink. When passion becomes rigidity, it is time for a dose of adaptability. ‘

‘At least two qualities are important for a good mentor: that ‘he/she has seen it before’, and therefore the more he/she has seen, the better the mentor. And secondly, he/she needs to be (and in status is) dispassionate.’

Confessions of an talented mentor

An evident contributor, likeable and enthusiastic, he brought a life-time’s experience of businesses (he recently retired as a Director of a major UK bank), and an effervescent clarity to issues that interested him. (http://wp.me/p3beJt/9P)

 

No 1. A Concept Developer like no other

A Lab head who encouraged her students to tackle issues that could have commercial appeal as much as scientific appeal, and helped them to realise their commercial capabilities as well as produce great science.

Jackie Ying was eager to push her already productive lab at MIT into the life sciences. Todd Zion was first attracted to her lab because of her fanatical work ethic; and her business-minded approach appealed to his nascent interest in becoming an entrepreneur – she says that every graduate student should tackle a project not only of tremendous scientific interest, but also of great commercial potential.

He was asked by Ying to see if the same technology her lab had used to make a nano-emulsion to coat the turbines in jet engines could create a platform for delivering insulin to treat diabetes. He spent two years trying to find a material that prevented the insulin from leaking out before he realised that the secret lay in chemically modifying the insulin itself. The discovery led to SmartCells, a company he and Ying co-founded in 2003, which was later sold to Merck for an undisclosed sum.

His business savvy drew the attention of Lita Nelsen, the longtime director of MIT’s technology licensing office because of the way he had run the company as a tight operation, and he was soon back starting another company with his former colleagues.

Ying says that roughly a quarter of her MIT students have founded companies or gone to work for a startup, but she has chosen not to take that path. ‘What interests me’, she says ‘is bringing the technology to a certain level where you can spin it off and then playing an advisory role to make sure that things are running smoothly.’

Andrey Zarur, one of Ying’s first graduate students who developed the technology that Zion later modified to create SmartCells says Ying ‘would take me with her on visits to companies to get funding for the lab. And I would make the presentation. People thought she was taking advantage of me because she made me do three PhD projects, but this was preparing me for the life I want’.

Ying went on to become the founding director of the Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore – to spread the twin gospels of top-flight research and entrepreneurship that she had learned at MIT. Her record over the past 12 years suggests that she has done exactly that. IBN has generated more than 300 patents, 80 licences, and eight startup companies.

Sometimes, she suggests, faculty members need help in finding a project with commercial promise, and sometimes she needs to find partners in industry to help with a project. Overall she hopes to find a way for IBN to help nurture new companies without losing all the scientists who did the technology’s foundational work. ‘We will continue to help the firms with research’, Ying says, ‘and maybe they will give us not just royalties but some shares to the people involved.’

(Abstracted from ‘Science’, June 12, 2015)

Shorter, not longer, Accelerators

How do you come up with an idea for a business that meets a big need, will be desired by customers and is readily fundable. BT’s Hothouses, quicker though more complex and involving, suggest a counter-cultural model: do it as one problem, not as a series of problems. (http://wp.me/p3beJt-bf)

 

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s