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


What do participants in Accelerators value most?


In their fast-developing projects, more than anything else they say they value what they get from other participants, from mentors and from contacts. But helping them to do so requires a closer knowledge of them, their project and their progress than most hatcheries manage.

The best part for one participant was what he got from his weekly meeting with the three programme ‘managers’; another valued above all else what he got from others on the programme. And what he got from a changing quorum of mentors, advisers and contacts was also cited as of immense value.
Many Accelerator programmes have weekly sessions at which project leaders have to talk about their progress. Bethnal Green Ventures’ sessions are with three programme managers – whose regular questions are: What have you achieved this week; What do you hope to achieve next week; What is stopping you; and What have you learned. (One incubator manager records their answers and makes them available on their intranet.) As one project leader commented, this process forces you to evaluate your progress and to think about the future. And you get valuable feed-back on these and other aspects of the project.
Starting up an enterprise may be personally demanding, but it clearly needs external help – in (skilfully managed) barrow loads! Moreover there is a big difference between reactive support and proactive support: between help that is simply available and support that enables you to find just what you need when you need it – a ‘mothering’ role, that entails close contact with the team and their evolving project.
Projects evolve fast, so that needs for help change as the project moves on; moreover leaders of early-stage projects often do not have the experience that would enable them to know what help they need, either now or to-morrow. So participants may identify what help they need, but the programme manager or a mentor may also see something – that the participant may not see (- often how about how the team is working).
Participants value most the help they seem to get from people whom they bump into in the Accelerator – other participants or visitors, who have just the knowledge or experience they need; and from the contacts to whom programme managers or mentors can introduce you – people who have solved a similar problem – development, technical, commercial or financial – in another context, and especially potential users and customers.
Sometimes mentors are simply a shoulder to cry on; other mentors provide feed-back, advice, ideas, technical knowledge, solutions; and they provide contacts of all sorts, especially with people with relevant technical expertise, and potential users or customers. Needs change fast, but once a need becomes clear, then as well as the programme manager, it is often a mentor who may be able to connect you to such a person.
Initially, mentors often found themselves telling would-be entrepreneurs that their idea was a non-starter! Some mentors would suggest difficulties that they either had not considered and/or would need to address; others would suggest looking at the problem from either a narrower or a wider perspective, or even looking at an altogether different issue. Participants often find this stage frustrating; but as time passes, these meetings focus more on their encounters with reality – how significant or representative they may be, as well as how they should respond to them.
Sometimes mentors would invite participants to reflect on why they had alighted on that particular issue; and occasionally to explore issues to do with the team – as not working as well as it needed to, or lacking certain essential skills for its purposes.
Visiting speakers, especially if they are among those who have ‘done it before’ are popular for the inspiration they bring – that can bring solace and renew determination in the roller-coaster that is the starting up of a new enterprise.

For more see See also Specialists will head up a coaching revolution, and Curating support for inventers, innovators and creatives