Mentoring: great benefits, but considerable problems


Mentoring: great benefits, but considerable problems
The benefits and the problems are well recognised. Several different routes are evolving, and four distinct approaches to the managing of mentors have different benefits and different problems.

Among the benefits that mentors are recognised as offering are their contributions from personal experience, their specific knowledge and expertise, and the contacts they can bring about. Among complaints about mentoring are their uncertain availability, the fact that they may offer conflicting advice, and their potential for incompatibility. Above all, confidence and trust are quintessential factors in the equation. Entrepreneurs are on an express train and they don’t want to be held up by being mis-routed down branch lines.

The managing of mentors has been seen as no more than simply putting them in touch with potential mentees. As yet there have been no serious attempts to manage cohorts of mentors in order to overcome the problems mentioned above, though Startupbootcamp has set great store by the quality of its mentoring; Seedcamp and Techstars great store by their ability to find you just the expert you need; Healthbox has set out to offer advice to startups about making effective use of mentors; Wayra Lab encourages its teams to form non-executive boards; and startup eRipple is seeking to facilitate and enhance the matching process.

What kind of mentoring regime do you espouse? There are at least four different approaches, each with different benefits and different disadvantages:
The reactive: if an incubatee wants some specific help, a mentor with the appropriate expertise can be found. This depends on the incubatee’s inclination to use mentors, on his/her perception of needs for help, as well as on the effectiveness of the linking process. (Bethnal Green Ventures, Bathtub 2)
The proactive: helps incubatees to identify the kind of help they need from moment to moment and can wheel up a mentor appropriate to that need. This approach adds in the expertise of the regular supervisory facilitator – to help identify the often rapidly changing mentoring needs of inexperienced entrepreneurs, but it depends on being able to wheel up not just the right expert, but just the right mentor for this team. (Techstars, Seedcamp)
The mentor programme: a regular programme of mentor visits, each with a different expertise. Useful for those incubatees who happen to need that kind of help at that very moment. (Canary Wharf’s Level39)
The mentor attachment: where a single mentor is attached to each incubatee/team for a duration. More a coach than a mentor, there will be few people who can provide effectively for all of the rapidly changing needs of entrepreneurial teams eg for experience, expertise and contacts. (Birmingham Innovation Campus, BioCity, Wayra Lab – encourages its teams to form non-executive boards; but how are they managed?)

With eRipple I am working with a number of mentees to understand how effective was the mentoring that they experienced and what made it so.

(1) ‘Getting advice in early-stage ventures’ describes the different sources of support and advice that entrepreneurs find valuable – in Accelerators.
(2) ‘I am a fly-on-the-wall at an Accelerator’s Mentor Day’ includes descriptions of different roles that Mentors play.

John Whatmore
December 2014


An Innovationary – every town should have one


Bathtub 2: a compact co-working condominium in the heart of the City
with intriguing laterals: a FabLab below, a change-your-life lab above, and an arts incubator-to-be across the road. If ever there was a co-working space whose different components were mutually self-supportive, this is it!

The Bathtub is a co-working space for early stage startups in ‘Everyman Businesses’ with an emphasis on job creation – in fields including ‘doing’ and ‘making’ and not just IT. The second of its kind, it has 130 desk spaces on the first two floors of 1 Frederick’s Place (EC2), with some desks butted up to accommodate teams of up to six people. The majority are for allocated to permanent users and the balance for hot-desk users. There are also some small meeting rooms and board rooms.

The ground floor is occupied by Bathtub 2 Boardroom’s partners FabLab London, one of a growing number of mini prototyping laboratories worldwide, a concept born in MIT. Its founders have furnished their space with a materials lab and the latest equipment such as a laser cutter and 3D printers and have given space over to The RSA’s “Great Recover Programme”, which focuses on design innovation that encompasses environmental concerns. Besides being useful to the likes of the Bathtub’s online retailer of bespoke wedding rings, who use it to send clients 3D rings to try on, it is looking to offer residences for other maker start-ups in small studios within the Lab.

On the third floor is The Escape School, an enterprise from Escape The City that aims to help people with “the life, career and start-up education you never had at school”. Located in the heart of the Square Mile, it is well placed just now to find customers, as it is to provide candidates for startups on the floors below.

Over the road, there will be a collection of small charities working in the performing arts, an incubator in another field – with eminent trustees.

Bathtub 2 has a big kitchen, which makes for chance meetings and chance conversations. Events are run regularly (in addition to those being run upstairs and downstairs); there are over a dozen mentors with whom you can make contact; and Scrub Club sessions provide opportunities for peer-to-peer problem-solving.

Bathtub 2 is the work of entrepreneur Paddy Willis, whose mantra might be: co-location, co-adventure, and co-inclusiveness! The accommodation is provided on a peppercorn rent from the Mercers’ Livery Company and is Grade II listed, though the area is due for redevelopment. It was refurbished with help from a £150k loan from Trust For London. It now employs five staff, the latest of whom – the new manager – last ran a noisy roof-top bar in Dalston – an ideal background for Paddy’s biggest challenge, that of getting people to spark off one another. After 8 months the charity is now profitable and busily looking for a new marketing manager, whilst Paddy is looking to replicate this wonderfully eclectic conglomerate in other suitable locations away from London.