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


Getting advice – in early-stage ventures


The chancy nature of support for those involved in early-stage ventures calls for mentor managers with extensive experience; and a new app may help the process.
Several of the participants in a recent Bethnal Green Ventures Accelerator told me that their best sources of support had been other participants together with the mentors they had encountered – other participants who had already been through experiences which they were now on the point of encountering; and mentors who had been able to put them in touch with intermediaries or with potential users or customers. At Wayra Lab, one participant mentioned to me that a visitor of another participant had proved to be just the person who was in a sector that would be the way forward for his own startup.
Conversations with fellow travelers are regarded as the best source of information of this sort – a justification for what Google calls ‘the hothouse atmosphere created by jamming workers together in overcrowded cubicles’; or in Bethnal Green Venture’s case in tight proximity in a single small room – where they will meet and talk (or overhear one another), especially in the space designated for making coffee (IBM’s Hursley Lab and Level39 at Canary Wharf both have unique coffee making machines), breakfast, lunch or supper (or in the toilet!). Design company Pentagram has a single long lunch table, where you sit next to the most recent comer, whether you know them or not. When the 3 O’clock bell rings in the Innovation Centre at Canary Wharf, you come out of your office and say hello to someone you’ve never met before.
Weekly gatherings of all the teams when they are required to present their progress, their plans and their problems provide another opportunity to tap into others’ experience (Y Çombinator, Watershed Bristol et al) – details often then circulated internally to all the teams. Carlson, CEO of Stanford Research Institute required his researchers to pitch their work regularly and repeatedly and then invite feed-back.
Managing effective mentoring entails close acquaintance with the progress and current issues of startups, and the ability to call in relevant knowledge, expertise or contacts just in time. The difficulty is that their needs evolve rapidly over time: from evaluation of the business concept, through technical support in product development, often including the complete rethinking of the product, the approach or the market (‘pivoting’), through contact with intermediaries, and potential users and buyers, and on to financing. And so they need different mentors along their path.
Founders (of Accelerators), with extensive commercial expertise and big address books, have usually been the focal point for marshaling mentors who have key contributions, but as management teams have expanded, both of those attributes have been attenuated. Wayra Lab, BioCity and Innovation Birmingham are among those organisations that have abandoned mentors because of the difficulties involved in managing their contributions (uncertain availability/conflicting advice/incompatibility etc), in favour of contracted support staff. But this approach doesn’t accommodate their changing needs, and is less likely to deliver high quality commercial advice. Above all, it is unlikely to be able to offer the contact with markets that mentors can. Seedcamp, Techstars and others continue to make use of extensive mentor networks – with as many as ten per startup, a small number of whom are in regular contact with a startup, the others on-call for their special knowledge, expertise or contacts. But delivering the right mentor at the right moment is a demanding task.
Nektarios Liolios’s wide experience (Managing Director of Startupbootcamp FinTech Accelerator) enabled him to see an opportunity that had not occurred one of this entrepreneur teams. He commissioned a search by his mentor manager using LinkedIn, which put the team in touch with a leading person in that field.
A new startup called eRipple is developing an app whose objective is to match the needs of startups with the contributions of mentors – in terms of their available time, their special expertise etc. To be used, it will need to be expeditious, and unfailingly trustworthy; but it could help mentor managers and startups to get ready access to an extensive network of expert mentors to meet fast-changing needs.

See also: ‘I am a fly on the wall at a Mentor Day’
and ‘Specialists will head up coaching revolution says Mike Atherton’

John Whatmore
October 2014