What mentees get (and can only get) from mentors
a presentation to a workshop at UCL February 2016
I have for some time been collecting stories from my encounters with mentors and mentees. So I have picked some to tell to-day. UCL would probably call me an ethnographer!
I have developed and sold a small company; I have been Chairman of a group of venture capital companies and a Nesta Associate; and I have always been fascinated with how you ‘manage’ innovation. My simple aim is to pass on to the innovation community advances that I come across.
Aggressive mentoring characterises to-day’s Accelerators. Seedcamp claims to have a thousand or more; Telefonica’s Wayra Lab 150; and Jon Bradford over a hundred. But in Incubators, they are much rarer – some of Oxford Innovations centres for example have none at all.
The rationale is simple enough: if you are creating a completely new business, it is great to have by your side someone who has done it before.
I have been asking mentors and their mentees in both startups and SMEs what mentors contributed, and what their mentees got out of them. Their answers depend on where they have got to with their new business.
helps in identifying something new and useful
The Strategist and Manager
helping to find ways of delivering it
helping to make it function, and produce a prototype
helping to adapt it to users, buyers and customers
The Investment adviser
helping to find ways of funding its scaling up
And not forgetting the Mentor Manager
Feed-back comes top – about their new product or service – for their mentors’ ability to introduce startups and their ilk to users, buyers or customers. They can never get enough of it.
Two participants I met at the recent MassChallenge Demo Day each said that they had made use of five mentors.
David Parker, a mentor at Startupbootcamp, helped his startup to identify possible routes to market; and then introduced the team to 10 people who were possible customers – who would chat with them only because David had introduced them.
One mentee told me: ‘Our mentors gave us advice, contacts and evaluation. One told us how to approach a potential user, who to talk to, what to say and how to say it.’ (Intriguingly Wayra Lab teaches the one minute pitch, the three minute and the five minute pitch!)
Andrew Grant who mentors at IdeaLondon used to be a senior manager at BT, and for that reason was able to effect an invaluable introduction for the company he came to chair; and BT became their first customer.
The voice of experience comes next in importance. Jim Milby retired recently as a Director of Barclays Bank – in his locanic mid-Atlantic brogue – says he has known a few companies. He now mentors several SMEs – one of them with Startupbootcamp’s Fintech Lab. It is his extensive experience and importantly his independent voice make him highly valued – in relation to strategy AND to management.
While the team, he says, are preoccupied with driving towards their current objectives, he might be asking questions about whether it is time to change something – in the product, or the target market segment, the key customer benefits, or the strategy for getting there.
He has always insisted on having a regular review of progress – once a week ‘because it is no good getting to Demo Day to pitch to investors if you still don’t have any customers’. Wayra Lab, one of Telefonica’s startup schools, attaches three mentors to each of its young companies, and they meet once a month along with programme staff – to assess progress in Board Meeting style. Paul Miller at Bethnal Green Ventures does it once a week – asking about what you achieved last week, what are your pain points and what you expect to achieve next week.
YCombinator does it over dinner every week; and Watershed Bristol does it over lunch on Fridays. As one mentee there observed: ‘there is always someone around who has done just what you are trying to do.’
Advice about the team comes with the same depth of experience. When Jim Milby began to have doubts about the length of one of his team’s runway, he insisted that they change their finance guy.
Jacoby Thwaites CEO of Sparkl here at IdeaLondon was asked by his mentor, Alastair Moore, two questions: how long is your pipeline of prospective customers; and who generates it. To Jacoby’s answer, Alistair simply said: Hire him – an exchange Jacoby has never forgotten.
And when Bill Clee here at IdeaLondon, had won two big projects, his mentor Andy Mulholland, an ex-CTO at Cap Gemini, helped him to sort out his back office and appoint an Operations Director and a Sales Director in quick time.
Making it work. Joe Rabin is Technologist-in-residence at Wayra Lab – highly appreciated for his help to participants in building their products and services. Trained as an engineer, he is something of a technical polymath. Many of the participants, he says, need help with their IT. On one occasion, he spent the entire week-end with a team whose developers had just jumped ship, helping them to reshape their strategy and get back on track.
Azita Esmaili helps young businesses to adapt their structure and their organization to their IT strategy – both at IdeaLondon and at MassChallenge.
Advice about investment is harder to come by. Many finance mentors are with the banks, but the banks are no longer lenders of this kind. And new sources of finance abound, but comprehensive advice about them is hard to find.
For example, Crowdfunding can be a nightmare. My father was a city expert in Prospectuses and would be turning in his grave; and my son rejected this route for his SME because of what is needed to service 40 or 50 shareholders.
A guy who once participated in one of my Learning Groups had designed and prototyped a 3D copier. He used Kickstarter to get almost two hundred pre-orders for his 3D copier; and their payments funded manufacture.
Sussex Innovation Centre has on its staff a guy (actually an ex-bank manager) who runs a local Angel network.
What is certain is that funders inevitably take time to get to know your company, and they take time to complete any deal.
Perhaps the best single mentor to have is a potential investor with experience in the field in which you are operating.
Lastly, I come to the role of Conceptor. It is this guy in whose hands it is to raise the entire status of the entrepreneurial revolution. IT-based new businesses are quick and cheap relatively speaking. But Healthcare, public services and education for example have hardly been touched yet.
Here are three inspiring leaders who work at the very front end of innovation.
Jackie Ying started at MIT. She has always encouraged her students to tackle projects that have commercial prospects as much as academic benefits.
In one such project, in order to create a platform for delivering insulin to treat diabetes they used the same technology her MIT lab had used to make a nano-emulsion to coat the turbines in jet engines. They sold it for an undisclosed sum to Merck. Later she founded her own Bioengineering and Nano-technology laboratory in Singapore, and over the last 12 years she has generated more than 300 patents, 80 licences and 8 startups. A Conceptor par excellence.
Ian Downey is another Conceptor. At the European Space Agency, he puts consortia together for innovative projects enabled by Satellite technology. To combat the recent sharp rise in Lyme’s Disease he had brought together researchers into malaria in Africa and in the UK, GPs and hospitals in Scotland, and pharmaceutical companies – in a project funded by the ESA at Harwell.
Steve Blank in the States runs nine-week Boot Camps designed to teach business skills to entrepreneurial scientists in technology-based startups – a bit like Accelerators. Since 2011, some 500 teams have taken the course. His ‘Innovation Corps’ programme has been adopted by the National Institutes of Health and has now been backed by the National Sciences Foundation. It has inspired new approaches in a variety of other similar bodies in the US and has recently been adopted in Imperial for startups based on synthetic biology.
And Wayra Lab has been asked by Oxford’s Isis whether they would set up a similar programme in Oxford.
Not forgetting the role of mentor manager.Thibaut Rouqette, the Mentor Manager at Startupbootcamp’s Fintech programme made himself continually aware of the mentoring needs of each and every team all the time; and equally aware of the expertise of all the hundred or so mentors; so that he might take a good stab at who to introduce to whom and when. He could even find you an expert on payments in sub-Saharan Africa! But there are very few who play this role.
Mentors remain undervalued and undersupplied. Under appreciated largely because it is only after the event that their value becomes so evident. And undervalued because they are only just beginning to be recompensed.
In the early days, the mantra used to be: never adopt a mentor who wants to do it for money (does that necessarily taint everyone?); but these days, as I discovered recently while I was recruiting a mentor for an e-commerce business, the norm seems to be around 1% of equity – no doubt over a period, or in options.
And the choice of mentor is often the outcome of a momentary interaction – startups won’t give time for anything longer. While programmes used to depend on someone’s large address book – Reshma Sohani, Jon Bradford or Nektarios Liolios, to-day organisations like Startupbootcamp run more extensive processes. The recruitment and development of a mentor bank is up to the mentor manager. I am just offering my services to a charity – the Rainmaking Foundation, and I shall be very interested to see how they do it.
Above all else it is their different perspectives that makes mentors so valuable, and so essential especially in incubators and research organisations like Harwell; and in Universities.