Mentorship and Your Startup

It shouldn’t surprise you that the vast majority of the world’s most successful businesses and entrepreneurs didn’t do it alone. Apple’s Steve Jobs had co-founder Steve Wozniak, Microsoft’s Bill Gates had co-founder Paul Allen, and Google was built by two men, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. And any successful startup needs a driven, flexible, intelligent, and passionate team.

What some entrepreneurs overlook though is the importance of mentorship. It’s not just about having a board of advisers, but building honest and long-lasting relationships, long before you start your own company. It’s about realizing that a good adviser is delighted to help when you give him or her a call. It’s also about realizing that, for the most part, you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.

Having someone to talk to, someone who has been in your shoes, is invaluable. No matter what work experience you’ve accumulated, starting and building a company is a unique experience. Even if you’ve successfully built and sold a startup, the second go-around will be different. There’s never enough you can learn: this is why you need to turn to people you trust and that have the experience. I’ve been lucky enough to have several great entrepreneurial mentors that have not only taught me what they’ve learned, but provide me with honest (and sometimes brutal) feedback on all of my ideas.

That’s another important point: a good mentor isn’t afraid to give you a reality check. Despite what some people will tell you, some ideas do suck. The best mentors want you to succeed and have seen the pitfalls that have trapped countless starry-eyed entrepreneurs.

Now for Some Advice:

I’m pretty sure that none of what I said above should surprise you, yet it’s important to reinforce how important mentorship is to a successful startup. With that said, here’s my advice on finding a mentor and getting the most out of the relationship

1. Start reaching out to potential mentors now. You want to build these relationships long before you need them.

2. When you start a new job, find yourself a mentor. It’s a great place to find someone older and wise to not only help you through the company, but to hone your skills. It’s just as important to find a mentor that will help you develop your product, engineering, and management skills, especially fresh out of college.

3. Don’t just network, but talk, ask, and keep in touch. We all know that networking’s important, but it’s the follow-up that builds relationships. If you hit it off with a potential mentor, ask them if they’d be willing to answer your questions or give you advice in the future. Actually follow through though.

4. Actually take their advice. Put your ego aside and realize why you asked someone to become your mentor.

5. Remember, people like to be mentors. A lot of people feel as if they’re intruding in a person’s time asking them for advice, when in fact most mentors welcome it with open arms. There’s a unique and fulfilling feeling to being a mentor and providing advice, so don’t be afraid to simply ask.

A special note to Troy Henikoff and Mark Achler: Thank you for all of the mentorship you’ve given me so far and for the relationships we have built.