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Startups: How to Get Mentored When You Don’t Have an Official Mentor

A lot of startups do not have an ‘official’ mentor. But do you need one? In all probability, yes!

Quickly, what are the different roles of a mentor?

Beyond the regular role of providing feedback and share industry gyaan, here are (probably) most important ‘features’ of a mentor:

1. Ask Tough Questions

Yes. Entrepreneurs need to get uncomfortable. All the time.

And mentors’ biggest role is to keep blowing their bubble by asking tough questions around the business (model).

2. Listen. Act. Provide Guidance. Clear Ambiguity.

That is, listen to the entrepreneur and provide guidance to the team.

By guidance, I just don’t mean industry guidance (knowledge etc), but guidance on ‘soft’ issues (ranging from hiring to firing to building culture etc).

3. Open up their Rolodex

If you get a mentor who has a strong rolodex, half the battle is already won.

Startup Mentorship
Startup Mentorship

 Question : I don’t have an official mentor. So how do I get mentorship?

Well, here are a few things that have worked for me:

Ask Relevant People. Be a Seeker

A lot many entrepreneurs end up asking product feedback from VCs. Not that VCs can’t give you feedback, but are they the best ones to provide you feedback on features/user experience? Do they have an authority in this space? In some cases, yes (for example, a VC who just sold his startup in similar space can give you a lot more open feedback).

How about asking somebody from the industry? How about asking feedback from those who actually understand the space?

Well, I meet a lot of people over a cup of coffee and ask them for feedback/suggestions on new ideas etc. Most of these aren’t even the people you and I would know in the ‘online/social’ world, but they are subject matter experts. They understand the space and if you come across as somebody who is looking for genuine feedback , these experts will ask you a lot of ‘tough’ questions.

Lesson : Know What You Are Looking For. Otherwise You Are Entering a ‘Gas’ Chamber.

Being A Seeker

There are two types of people when it comes to taking feedback/suggestions :

A. This category keeps replying to each and every point. For them, ‘being correct’ is more important than taking feedback.

B. Active Listener. They take feedback/suggestions as-is and decide not to confront them. Of course, they process what is being said, but unlike category A, they don’t piss off the ones who are giving feedback to them.

 It’s obvious which category will get a genuine feedback/mentorship!

Importantly, always close the loop on feedback/guidance you have received from others. Even if you have decided to not follow other’s suggestions, thank them and tell them what you instead plan to do.

How to get connected when you are not connected

I am not that well connected.  Apart from the fact that I am a hard-core nerd who anyday would like to keep fiddling with his smartphone than get into random conversations, the truth is that I have very little connections in media/business space.

“Just because no one has been fortunate enough to realize how wonderful you are, doesn’t mean you shine any less.” [Summer Glau]

Here is what I have learnt over a period of time that I thought will also help other entrepreneurs who are in similar shoes.

The Truth in India

It’s difficult to get introductions in India. In Silicon Valley, everybody starts with ‘How can I help you?’. In India, things aren’t even close to that. There is a bit of tendency to look at one’s rolodex as a status symbol.

For some, this opens up a mediator role and that means you need to pay to get connected.

Result : The Needle Does Not Move.

So what’s the smartest way out?

Disclaimer: This is totally based on my experience.

Here is what has worked and what WILL ALWAYS work.

BE GENUINELY AWESOME.

Don’t be just awesome, but be genuinely awesome. By being genuinely awesome, remember Swami Vivekanand words:

First deserve, then desire.

The genuinely awesome* part is mostly governed by deserving the connections and intros you need.

Always remember that most of the respectable names do not open up rolodex for the fact that

a. they don’t know you (hence, cannot trust).

b. they don’t know your intentions.

 That is, they cannot bat for you to their connections.

How Being Genuinely Awesome Solves This?

Most of the high profiled people who have other high profile people in their rolodex are looking for ways to prove that they (themselves) are well connected and know the (unknown) doers and innovators in their space (Maslow’s hierarchy, you see!).

If you go to them with a request to connect, they will not reply. But the moment you are seen as somebody who is brilliantly awesome and a great person to know of, they will be happy to oblige.

How will they know you are effing awesome, the genuinely awesome guy?

Well, because you will be talked about very often. You will be talked in one’s peer network and that builds a sense of trust among the ‘arrived’ individuals that ‘yeah! I think this person is genuinely awesome’.

And you know why you will be talked about?

Because of your work. Not because you are great or have a pedigree, but your work will speak for itself.

And your work will speak for itself because you are one of those individuals who have showed great grit, patience and respect towards what you are doing.

Mind you, there are very few that have these qualities. And that’s why I used genuinely awesome (and not just awesome).

So when you go to them for an intro help, they will oblige.

Why?

Because every Bollywood director wants the world to know how he spots a talent, how he plays the connector role in the ecosystem. And that brings more talent to him/her.

Ditto applies for all those who have a strong rolodex. Be genuinely awesome and they will be happy to open up their rolodex. Not because they want to help you, but because they want to make their rolodex bigger and have more influence.

Remember: If you sound needy, you will be ignored.


TL;DR : To get mentored, first be a mentee, be a seeker. If you have a ‘know-it-all’ attitude, you are better off not wasting your time with mentorship.

But, if you are somebody who is willing to learn and have an open mind, you will meet a whole lot of people who can teach you things, ask relevant questions and provide guidance.

I have learnt a lot from such individuals – there is no reason why you cannot.

What are your thoughts?

[Image credit: shutterstock]

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