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Should you be speed dating your mentor?

Monday, 7 November 2011 | By Oliver Milman

Getting good value from a mentor used to be quite a drawn-out process. You could spend weeks, or even months, tracking down the right guru for your start-up, all for a brief coffee and chat.


However, much like the starting up process itself, which has been turbo charged by the web and a globally-competitive marketplace, mentorship no longer requires a lengthy courtship.


Mentor network PushStart has introduced the concept of mentor “speed dating” for start-ups that need a quick-fire dose of advice from multiple industry experts.


The idea to Mentor Live! is simple. Budding entrepreneurs are allowed to book up to three, 15-minute sessions with different mentors. They then have to get across their idea, answer questions and take any criticism on the chin in the allocated time.


Three Mentor Live! events have taken place so far this year, across Sydney and Melbourne, comprising a total of more than 400 mentoring sessions.


Although the concept of speed mentoring has been around for awhile in the US and Canada, the process will be new for most Australian start-ups.


So what is the benefit of whizzing around three different mentors rather than sticking with one long-term advisor? Isn’t it a bit self-defeating?


Kim Heras, founder of the PushStart network, denies that the process is a pointless gimmick.


“The obvious benefit is how simple it is – you get a list of mentors that have nominated themselves rather than having to get someone interested in your idea first,” says Heras.


“You then get a number of sessions, which gives you a lot of practice in pitching in a short period of time. It’s a low commitment kind of event – you can use it for practice without thinking that you’ve blown your one shot with an investor.”


Mentor links


Heras also points to the indirect benefits that start-ups have gleaned from the events.


“It works very well as a first stage of mentoring – start-ups have gone on to a more formal relationship with mentors afterwards,” he says.


“Sometimes, the more important value is being the other people that mentors have introduced start-ups to. You not only walk away with a good first impression of your business but also help with growing that business by being put in touch with suppliers or other partners.”


But what do the start-ups that have been through the whirlwind mentor sessions think? We spoke to two to see what value they got from the process.

Chris RickardChris Rickard


Business: SetKick


What’s your big idea?


I started work on it with three other guys about eight months ago. I’m about to give up my full-time job to work solely on it.


SetKick is a system that manages the pre-production process for crew and cast on a shoot.


I was living in Canada with one of the other co-founders who was working with some dodgy software for managing the production process and we saw a need for something new.


We realised there was no one player dominating the market and that we could do something with a scheduling system that was compatible with mobiles, which people could use on film sets.


Why did you go to a speed mentoring event then?


I spent ridiculous hours in the spare bedroom developing it. I went to Mentor Live! because I thought “what next?”


Our skills aren’t in business. We’re interested in start-ups, but we haven’t done anything like this before and we wanted to get some advice.


Also, we hadn’t pitched the idea to anyone apart from family and friends, so it was good practice.


What did you learn from the experience?


The first thing you realise is that you can’t convey the excitement you have for the idea in just 15 minutes.


Tom Howard, the co-founder of Adioso, was the first mentor we spoke to, and I was a little awe struck. It was hard to explain what the app does in just 15 minutes, as well as what we want to do with it.


We realised that we couldn’t answer every question he would have, so we decided to turn things around and ask him about his experience at YCombinator. That was really useful.


We went to the second guy without having the time to speak among ourselves about how to handle it better. Again, we did the back and forth thing, showing him screen shots while telling him what the system does.


He asked many of the same questions that Tom did and suggested that we could tailor the app to film schools.


We cut back the pitch from the big picture, which gave all of our history. We gave specific information that got over the essence of what we were doing. By that time, we were mentally worn out.


By the third guy, we were saying even less. Inadvertently, we were getting better at pitching as we went along.


We were cutting out the unnecessary stuff that the mentors didn’t really need to know about at that stage. We showed what the problem was in the industry and how our app was going to solve it.


What advice would you give other start-ups that pitch at something like that?


The biggest piece of advice is to realise that you won’t be able to explain every part of your start-up in one go.


Keep it short and succinct. If you stay to the bare bones, the mentor may not grasp how much you love the idea, but he or she will certainly know how it works and whether it has a chance in the marketplace.

Michael CarrMichael Carr


Business: Swoop


So Michael, what’s the big idea?


I’ve been working with a business partner to create a fusion of Gumtree and a daily deals site.


Sounds interesting. What do you mean by that, exactly?


Well, it will work as a live marketplace where businesses set offers there and then. The offers are more live and in the hands of businesses at any time of the day.


We wanted to have somewhere with time-limited deals, rather than having money off for weeks at a time. We wanted a shorter timeframe. The theory is more “there are 30 doughnuts left – first in, best dressed”.


What have you done with this idea so far then?


We’ve kicked off development on the website back-end and an iPhone app. We’ve got a few stages to launch – we’ll be kicking of merchant acquisition in January. Hopefully it’ll all be up by March or April.


I had the idea maybe two years ago and I just sat on it. I felt that I’ve got nothing to lose by giving it a go. I use Gumtree a lot and I wondered why you couldn’t combine it with a daily deals model.


Why did you go to the Mentor Live! event?


We were talking to friends who had businesses and their advice was to get in front of a mentor as soon as possible.


I actually saw something on StartupSmart about PushStart and I jumped on it. I thought the idea was brilliant.


The speed dating element itself was fantastic. It went on after the actual sessions too – I spoke to Kim Heras who almost became another, unofficial, mentor.


What did you get out of the process?


The night went so quickly, but we came away with three or four nuggets of really useful advice.


For example, we thought a bit more about the payments system. We’d thought of just one side of it, but there’s actually a two-sided market that you have to provide payment services for.


When we first sat down with Zac Jacobs from Tigerspike, we didn’t know where to start. We realised that we needed to structure the pitch around what the idea is and what need it fulfils.


Then we went to Tom from Adioso who said that he didn’t want to see the idea, he just wanted to hear a 30-second elevator pitch. That really put us on the spot, but it really gave us a clear idea of how we needed to pitch the business.


What did you learn from the experience?


Have a 30-second pitch ready and prepared with no “uhms” and “ahhs”. I work in sales where you go into every negotiation with a pre-prepared pitch, which is exactly the same when pitching a start-up.


Keep it concise and have some questions pre-prepared too. I came away thinking, “I wish I’d asked that”.


At the moment, it’s not very easy to get investment, especially in the Australian market. You need to get every advantage you can get, which means getting out there and getting good advice.


You need to build your idea, prove that it has some worth and then start looking for funding. We’ve got some money from family and friends, so we’ll see where we’ll go with it.


At the end, I got the contact details from some of the mentors and asked if we could keep in touch. We really want to maintain those contacts so we can get a footing before going into an incubator.