Earlier this week, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting and mentoring the 2011 class of 10 startups in the Excelerate Labs accelerator program in Chicago. I am looking forward to a fun summer with these guys. There is nothing more invigorating than being surrounded by a bunch of excited and motivated entrepreneurs, and trying to help them acheive their goals of building world class companies. And, I am happy to contribute learnings from my 20 year career to help them get up the learning curve faster and for me to give back to the local Chicago entrepreneurial ecosystem, of which I am a part. When I was launching iExplore back in 1999, I wished I had a pool of proven entrepreneurs I could freely approach to help show me the way.
Mentors are one of the most valuable resources an entrepreneur should tap into. Especially, if the mentors are freely organizing themselves into "on call and free consultants" via incubator and accelerator programs. The idea of launching a business should no longer be a scary or daunting experience. It should be a collaborative experience accumulating the learnings of the scores of local entrepreneurs who have already built successful businesses, and can help you move faster and avoid known pitfalls based on their years of experience, as an entrepreneur themselves.
And, what's great about mentors or business coaches is that they come in all shapes and sizes that can handle the myriad of topics that you may be having a problem. So, search for the mentors based on your various business size, your various industry, or your specific business problem, on a case-by-case basis. Unlike finding a long term person for your board of directors or advisory board, as we discussed back in Lesson #12, mentors are more like "hired guns" on one-off topics that present themselves over time.
As an example, one of the startups I met this week needed help in structuring a strategic partnership with the leading media company in their industry to assist them with promotion and building up an audience. And, modestly, who better to help them than me, who structured a very similar media-related strategic partnership with National Geographic, while I was building iExplore. Having the benefit of hindsight of cutting a strategic deal with a big media company, I have first hand experience of where the plusses and minuses of that relationship presented themselves after the ink was signed, and it was too late to change anything in the agreement. So, hopefully, this startup can benefit from my experience, and can write a better agreement in their deal, than I did in mine.
In terms of actually finding these people, it should be as easy working your offline and online business networks. And, if some cases, willing mentors freely make themselves known on websites of the various incubator or accelerator programs' websites. For example, here is the list of the Excelerate mentors you may be able to research and politely approach, whether you are formally in the Excelerate accelerator program or not. And, I am a big fan of working my LinkedIn network (nationally) and my BuiltInChicago.org network (locally in Chicago). The concept of six degrees of separation to anybody and everybody has never held more true: I am never more than two or three degrees away from anybody that I am trying to reach out to. And, sites like LinkedIn and Twitter makes it easy to search by keyword for domain experts on any topic you may need help with.
And, don't be intimidated or afraid to reach out to prospective mentors. We don't bite ;-) The worst thing that can happen is the mentor may be too busy to handle your specific problem, and they will politely decline or point you in the right direction to someone who may be able to help in their absence. That said, you have to be sensitive to the mentors' time. It is one thing to get one random question a month, that requires a little bit of time to solve. It is another thing to get ten random questions a week, that requires a lot of time to solve.
If you find yourself approaching this latter situation, now may be the time to move that person to your formal board of directors or advisory board with equity incentives to compensate them for their time. And, in all cases, do not take your mentors for granted: if they do something very helpful for you (e.g., help save you a ton of money, or negotiate an even better deal), send them a thank you note, or gift card, or bottle of wine or whatever to show you much you appreciated their help and keep them excited to continue to help you in the future.
Always remember: you are not alone in your startup efforts, there is a wide base of mentors and business coaches you should tap into to help you accelerate and optimize your efforts. Good luck.
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