The managing of mentoring

What is wrong with our mentoring? Mentoring is not making the contribution of which it is capable. It is time for new initiatives. MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service is a managed process, which has been adopted widely, and now by Imperial.

Nearly 60% of startup failures are because they do not meet a real customer need, says recent research by CBInsights; and a third of all startup failures blame team problems. Yet research on mentoring (reported in ‘Accelerators’ 2018, by Wright and Drori) asserts that marketing opportunities and lack of managerial experience are two of the top fields in which mentors help startups. So what is going wrong with mentoring?

From 2011 a UK government scheme enabled hi-growth small businesses to work with a mentor; and mentoring was a key part of the government’s 2012 Growth Builder programme, but alas, despite its record of success, for some strange reason it was withdrawn in 2016.

Seedcamp, Y Combinator, Techstars, Wayra Lab and Startupbootcamp – leaders in the field of Accelerators, all hold tenaciously to the importance of mentors and mentoring. With their regular re-evaluation of progress, problems and plans (‘Office Hours’), and with their many connections, they aim to link startups to people with specialised expertise or experience, often using variants of speed-dating.

Where mentoring has been made available in Incubators in the UK, it often amounts to no more than an introduction to someone with vaguely related experience, and the process left to find its own way.

MIT Venture Mentoring Service (VMS) has taken a more systematic approach. It is not simply a service of introductions: it is a managed programme.

“ * First establish a local cohort of volunteer mentors (carefully interviewed and screened) who warrant that they will have no financial interest in this work, whose ethos is one of giving back and who confirm their commitment to giving one to two days equivalent in a month and will come to a monthly meeting of mentors (they will value its prestige, its networking and its sociability).

* Mentors always work and meet together in teams of 3-5, one of whom is the lead mentor.  They are from different business backgrounds and will share their different business experiences.

* The entrepreneur they are serving determines the agenda for each meeting and MIT makes all the meeting arrangements.”

MIT VMS has applications from 20-30 new ventures a month (from students, faculty, staff and importantly from Alumni).

For the last 13 years, MIT VMS has also run an intensive Outreach Training Program (for details, see 1 below) which has trained 91 sister programs from 23 countries (in universities, economic development organizations, accelerators, incubators and in hybrid organizations) to help them establish their own formal mentoring program based on the MIT VMS Model.

MIT VMS has been in discussions with a number of other parties in the UK, but the only adopter has been Imperial College. [To-morrow, yes, to-morrow I review Imperial’s approach and progress with mentoring.]

John Whatmore, March 2019


(1) In the Outreach Program, under an agreement with MIT, an organisation sends a team of up to 5 people to MIT for the Immersion Training Program of 2 1/2 days which includes:

-comprehensive curriculum with sessions on the concept of team mentoring,  who makes a good mentor, where to find such people and criteria for entrepreneurs for successful mentoring.

-observing an actual team mentoring session being conducted

-attending a MIT VMS Monthly Mentor Meeting

-meeting mentors, entrepreneurs and management informally.

MIT VMS staff will mentor the visiting organisation as though they were a start up and will hold a strategy mentoring session with them as mentees.  As an additional and optional program, MIT VMS will send an instructor/mentor to their location to train their first group of new mentors.


John Whatmore, March 2019



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