Mentoring: a timely Academic review

Mentoring: a timely Academic review of its role in Accelerators Among the articles in the recently published book entitled ‘Accelerators’, the section on Mentors (much of it drawn from the extensive network of Accelerators in Israel) explores mentorship as ‘one of the building blocks of accelerators’ education programmes’. But coaching and mentoring remain underexplored and undervalued in the business world.

Perhaps its most helpful contribution is about typical problems with which mentors can help:

  • over-optimism and naivety about market barriers and the business model;
  • commercialisation of the product, and the targeting of its market;
  • marketing and dealing with global markets;
  • lack of managerial experience; and
  • difficulties in scaling up.

It is lack of experience more than lack of knowledge that is at the heart of many of these problems; and failures are an important part of experience – that mentors need to support and turn to good effect. (Very recent research by MIT suggests that successful entrepreneurs tend to be in the forties.)

Four regular topics identified were:

Setting up strategy and establishing priorities What is the market/the market fit for this kind of product/the best market to go for.

Revealing marketing opportunities Identifying unique benefits; how they would be used; and where they can be marketed to best effect, and against the competition.

Structuring organisational processes Advising on team membership and team building, including inter-cultural conflicts.

Expanding ventures’ social capital Occasionally connecting to other relevant startups/networks.

(Surprisingly there is no mention of product design or development, nor of manufacture.)

Mentoring is addressed in this book mostly through anecdotes, and largely in terms of mentors’ invariably extensive background experience, their perceived objectives, and their motivations. However it draws on too small a range of accelerators to include some facets of mentoring (like establishing a fit and developing relationships, and some important developments, like the way in which the need for specific kinds of help changes as businesses evolve).

Mentoring is described as ‘altruistic, educational, updating, stimulating and possibly offering investment opportunities’ and as sometimes a bridge to other contributors in the eco-system.

‘They [mentors] ask questions that force entrepreneurs to think strategically and more objectively, to intensify processes and shake entrepreneurs out of their comfort zone.’

‘The challenge is to match mentors to mentees according to the stage of development, their needs and personal fit.’ There is, however, nothing here about the various approaches to establishing good fits – many of them based on variants of speed-dating. (Startupbootcamp has used a talented mentor manager, both for finding specialist mentors and for changing mentors according to teams’ changing needs.)

Mentors, a contributor suggests, meet weekly or bi-weekly, but they develop their understanding and relationship progressively and in parallel with the development of the business.

One contributor asserts that having more than one mentor leads to confusion; but Steve Blank of I-Corps, the accelerator widely adopted in the world of science in the US, identifies five different aspects of development where mentors with specific backgrounds and experience are needed, often in succession to one another, namely: conceptualisation, strategy, product development, marketing and funding.

There is an unspoken presumption that mentors somehow know best how to play their role, though Startupbootcamp has from time to time brought mentors together and provided an opportunity for them to learn from one another’s experience in the role.

‘Accelerators’, edited by Mike Wright and Israel Dori, Edward Elgar Publishing, 2018.

John Whatmore, November, 2018

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