Startup Mentors: Where Are You?

“How is your previous company doing?”

“We shut that one down”

“Why?”

“Bad user reviews, we started this one after that”

“I see, where are you going with this one?”

“We haven’t decided yet, we’re confused. There is lots of opportunity, and so many features. We are deciding whether to put it out altogether or leave it with just one”

This is the state of the most Indian startups, constantly in flux and confused. To pull them through are mentors or advisers who guide the course of a startup. But where are these people in India? Why is it so tough to land a mentor? What do Indian startups lack? Or is it the mentors that are lacking? We asked around.

 What they agreed on regardless of which side they were on: Having a mentor is one of the most important things for a startup in India.

startup mentors
Startups Need Mentors Who Can Play

Indian Startups on Mentorship

Indian Mentors Don’t Take Risks, are Unapproachable

mYwindow, a startup that now has a platform that lets you sell anything, had a tough time finding mentors. They approached 48 firms and angel investors in India seeking advice, only to find out that they needed 100K users from the current 25K to gain a mentor’s interest.

“Here, they don’t like to take risks. We were very well connected with the VC community in India. They used to say that, if you want to succeed and raise investment or get advice in India, get at least 100k users and you need to get revenue from day 1,” says Nikunj Agrawal, founder of mYwindow.

The company that recently pivoted, thanks Apple’s Steve Wozniak for it.

“In the US it’s different, you have more approachable people. Here, I don’t know what is wrong with people, is it that they have too much attitude? There I sat with a Steve Wozniak, face to face and discussed my ideas,” he says.

He goes on to say that Steve Wozniak gave him the piece of advice that changed the course of his company – focus on one product instead of many.

Startup Mentoring Scene in India is “Very Bleak”

Sampad Swain, co-founder at Instamojo, a platform that sells digital goods feels that mentorship scene in India is bleak at best. Although Instamojo themselves have a mentor, he feels that smaller companies find it tough to get there.

“India is the only country where there are enough and more people with knowledge, but not enough ‘qualified’ mentors. They have opinions, but not very good ones,” he says.

The Demand-Supply Equation

India also has a higher number of startups seeking mentors than there are mentors available for these. A fact that the startups we talked to agreed upon.

“Out of the 100 startups in India who demand a mentor, there are probably 20 mentors qualified enough to guide them. The demand-supply disparity is huge in India, unlike the USA,” says Swain.

Need to Find Someone You “Click” With

More often than not, startups don’t find mentors with whom they gel well, and who can steer them in the right direction.

“I had a mentor when I started my first venture, not the second. I would always prefer a mentor who has had some kind of social media experience, not just someone who has invested big,” says Gaurang Kanvinde, founder of app DrawTyme, “To me, it’s a lot like dating, we just have to click. And it’s not that there is no knowledge, but it’s tough to find the right person,” he adds.

This is another point that everyone agreed on. Finding someone you relate to takes the startup places.

The Other Side [How to Land the Perfect Mentor]

Mentors however, seemed concerned about the state of startups in India. If they REALLY want a mentor/adviser, they WILL find one they say.

Know Your Problem

Mentors have a problem that you don’t know what your problem is. Startups who approach mentors without identifying what they want solved, will get nowhere with their session.

“They want to be spoon-fed. They don’t understand that a mentor’s advice will be general. No person/company can relate entirely to another one. Mentors can lend perspective, not instant solutions,” says Ankit Maheshwari, founder of Betaout and a mentor.

Identify Between Mentor & Consultant

Another place where startups fail at is not knowing what a mentor does, believes Sanjay Anandram who is a venture partner with Seedfund, and mentor to over 20 startups.

“Most startups don’t know the difference between a mentor and a consultant, and which one they need,” he says, “One is the superset of another. Find out which role you want, and go after that person,” he adds.

Mentors are not people who provide the instant solutions that startups want, but exist solely to enhance the maturity of a startup he adds. Consultants are ones with  solutions to real and specific problems like fixing a computer, or helping with business basics.

Be In It For The Learning, Not for the Money

Lalit Bhise of enterprise mobility solutions company, Mobisy, feels that mentors are essential for startups at different points of their lifecycles. On an average, a startup can get 2-3 hours a month out of a mentor, provided he doesn’t set unrealistic expectations.

“Don’t go after mentorship in the first six months of starting out. Try and do what you want. It’s important to be brash and convinced with your own ideas. If you start listening to everyone who says you can’t do it like this or that, you probably won’t,” he says.

Lalit has advised 4-5 startups in their journey in the last one year. He believes in mentoring for the mutual exchange of ideas and learning. More often than not, startups approach mentors looking for money than advice. In consensus mentors agree that funding is NOT the answer.

Engage, Engage, Engage!

“Just because you want a mentor, doesn’t mean the mentor wants to hang out with you. You’re not doing anyone a favour by being an entrepreneur. The onus is on the entrepreneur to excite a mentor enough. It’s like finding a customer,” says Sanjay Anandram who believes that value addition to mentors’ time is crucial.

According to him, it’s not all about the startup. He chose most of the 20 startups he mentored on chemistry, knowledge levels, passion, how driven they were and the value-add they gave him. They made the time he took out to advise them worth it.

Follow Peers & Those Who Have Failed

Not all mentors need to be those who invested big or are super successful. Mentors generally agree that engaging and networking at events with peers gives you a better chance at finding the right answers than following a formal ‘mentor’ itself.

Instead of following the successes out there, look toward those who failed in their ventures to learn the best says Ankit.

“Everyone looks for mentors in successful people thinking they have done everything right, but no one realises that talking to those have failed will give more value. You can learn from their mistakes,” he says.

To wrap it up, Sanjay says to the disheartened – The Indian startup has many lifecycles to go through (the US already has), this is just the beginning. We will evolve, we haven’t reached maturity yet, and there will be many,many mentors.

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