mentors engaged with founders

How Smart Startups Keep Mentors Engaged

The smartest startups keep mentors engaged as much as possible. With our next cohort set to kick off their 3-month stay with us next week, we’d like to share some tips on how to do just that.

Why You Need Engaged Mentors

It should hopefully come as no surprise to our startups that they will be getting advice from some of the very best business minds in Central Europe, and around the world. But that advice is only so valuable. A startup team’s ability to execute on every piece of advice they receive, particularly during an accelerator program, is limited. A person only has so much bandwidth, and the scheduling demands that the program imposes, leaves little time for reflection.

A typical comment we get from founders, around the end of the mentoring period, is “I keep hearing the same thing… I just want to fix it now!”

That’s ok. Part of the value of the mentoring period, in the first month of the program, is “shock and awe.” It is a trial by fire for a startup’s ideas, and for their ability to communicate those ideas clearly. It’s meant to shake them up, and wear down their bad habits, eliminating any lazy or wishful thinking.

To some extent, startups do long to go back into “builder mode,” and focus solely on executing all the advice they’ve been given. And they do usually still have a lot of building to do. But one common mistake; something we see every single year, is that startups will treat mentors as the source of individual ideas or advice, but not as a wellspring of continuing support.

I can’t say how many times great mentors, who have had big impacts on the teams they have worked with, have come to me asking for updates about those teams. These mentors would probably be flattered to hear what an effect they’ve had on their favorite startups, but the startups often don’t tell them. And the mentors, not knowing whether they’ve been listened to, don’t press the issue either.

And so time and again, mentors who are ready to offer support, further contacts, and more, are simply left with the impression that the startup isn’t doing anything, much less anything they recommended or hoped the startup would try.

Mentors who aren’t engaged with a startup’s activities won’t mention them to colleagues and friends. They won’t brag about progress they don’t know about, and they won’t think of the startup the next time they meet someone who would be an interesting contact for the founders.

How to Keep Mentors Engaged

This isn’t terribly complicated stuff. Many startupers fear at first that “spamming” or “networking,” is the act of the desperate and the unloved. If their ideas are brilliant and their products genius, then surely success will simply find them. Alas, it doesn’t work that way at all. Our mentors, along with investors and partners, usually appreciate “hustle,” or the appearance that startups are making a special effort to maintain contact, and further relationships.

As always, there are a few simple best practices to follow.

A Mentor Newsletter

Two of StartupYard’s best Alumni, Gjirafa and TeskaLabs, provide regular “Mentor Update” newsletters. These letters can follow a few different formats, but the important things are these: be consistent in format, and update regularly. Ales Teska, TeskaLab’s founder, sends a weekly update to all mentors and advisors.

In the email, he has 4 major sections. Here they are with explanations of the purpose of each:

Introduction

Here you give a personal account of how things are going. You can mention personal news, or news about the team, offices, team activities, and other minutiae. This is a good place to tell small stories that may be interesting to your mentors, and will help them to feel they know you better. Did a member of the team become a parent? Tell it here. Did you travel to Dubai on business? Give a quick account of the trip.

Ask

This is one section which I love about Ales’s emails. I always scroll down to the “ask” section, and read it right away. Here, Ales comes up with a new request for his mentors every single week. It can be something simple like: “we really need a good coffee provider for the office,” to something bigger, like “we are looking for an allstar security-focused salesman with 10 years experience.” Whatever it is, he engages his mentors to answer the questions they know, by replying directly to the email. This way, he can gauge who is reading the emails, and he can very quickly get great answers to important questions or requests.

Wins

Here, Ales usually shares any good news he has about the company. This section is invaluable, because it reminds mentors that the company is moving forward, and making gains. A win can be anything positive. You can say that a win was hiring a great new developer, or finally getting the perfect offices. Or it can be an investment or a new client contact. These show mentors that you are working hard, and that you are making progress and experiencing some form of traction. You’d be surprised how many mentors simply assume that a startup that isn’t talking about any successes, must have already failed.

KPIs

Here Ales shares a consistent set of Key Performance Indicators. In his case, it is about the company’s sales pipeline, but for other companies, it might be slightly different items, such as “time on site,” or “number of daily logins,” or “mentions in media.” Whatever KPIs are most important to your growth as a company, these should be shared proactively with your mentors.

If the news isn’t positive, then explain why. You can also have a little fun with this, and include silly KPIs like: “pizza consumed,” or “bugs found.” This exercise shows mentors that you are keeping track of what is important, and gives them a reliable and repeatable overview of what you’re experiencing in any given week.

Don’t Be Alone

We find this mentor email to be such an important practice, that we will be recommending its use to all of our startups going forward. Ales Teska agrees, and told me that the email had already led to some big wins for TeskaLabs. Not bad for 10 minutes of work a week.

But more importantly, whether you regularly update mentors or not, don’t waste the opportunity that StartupYard provides in making connections. If a mentor doesn’t reach out to you, reach out to them. If you can’t think of anything to say to them, just find something to ask them. The key is: talk to them, and don’t let them fall out of your orbit. The mentors and advisors you have interested in you, the greater your chances that a breakthrough will come when you need it most.