Business Mentors: How to Get The Best Out Of Your Mentor

Top 10 qualities to look for in a start-up mentor

By Oliver Milman
Thursday, 29 September 2011

Start-ups of Melbourne rejoice! As we reported yesterday, start-up incubator PushStart revealed that it is to hold its first mentor speed dating event, Mentor Live, in the city next week.


The event, following a Sydney version, is part of a mentor program that has several hundred start-ups on board.


Entrepreneurs in Queensland aren’t being overlooked when it comes to mentorship either, with Queensland Leaders telling us this week that they have been deluged by applications for its three-year hand-holding scheme


Start-up mentorship is a booming industry. Whether its AngelCube in Australia or Vodafone in Silicon Valley, seasoned business operators appear to be falling over themselves to help the next big thing.


But once you have the ear of a mentor, what should you be getting out of the relationship? And, crucially, what things should be looking for in a potential mentor in the first place?


We talked to the experts to glean the 10 qualities you should seek out in your business guru.


1. Enthusiasm


You may have cosied up to a heavy-hitting entrepreneur who has the experience and skills needed to help your business to the next level. But do they actually care enough?


“It’s great to have an entrepreneur who is worth $100 million and has exited four companies, but they need to have bandwidth,” says Andrew Birt, co-founder of AngelCube.


“In a good mentor relationship they will get as much value out of it as you. It will provide them with the buzz they had when they started up.”


Rob Antulov, director at Hall Capital Strategies and PushStart mentor, says: “Mentors should have a willingness to help. There is always a balance between altruism and pragmatism. But there are always people around who want to help and make a difference.”


2. Sector experience


While you need a generalist mentor, you also need a specialist. A mix of the two is ideal. What you don’t want is a mentor with no idea of the industry you’re operating in.


“A mentor needs a good breadth of experience, but enough sector knowledge to help you,” says Antulov.


“They need credentials in your area. Look them up on LinkedIn to see their experience and ask around about their reputation.”


3. Fee free


If a potential mentor is looking for a regular fee you should steer clear. In the start-up phase you need as much free advice as possible. If necessary you can offer future rewards but don’t be ripped off.


“If a mentor wants an hourly rate that’s not what you are looking for,” says Birt.


“Firstly, it makes you think ‘if you’re so successful, why do you need an hourly rate?’ Secondly, it means your motivations are mis-matched.”


“A better way is to enter into an equity investment, maybe between 1-5%. I’d be hesitant, however, if someone wanted 10-15% of my business in return for just advice.”


4. Realism


Invariably you will charge ahead with the launch of your business, convinced that you have the product or service the world has been waiting for. A good mentor will tug on the reins a little.


“Entrepreneurs’ optimism, which is great, can blind them to the possible negatives of what they are doing,” says Antulov. “A mentor should be able to offer their pragmatic experience to balance this out.


“They should have an idea of the future potholes that you may face. They will know what other businesses have fallen down on before, whether that’s IP, a licensing deal or whatever.”


5. Reassurance


Similarly, a good mentor will eliminate any worries or concerns that prove to be baseless, so that you can concentrate on building your business.


“You can’t be on day two of your business and be worried about section 37, paragraph two of your shareholders’ agreement,” stresses Antulov.


“Of course, if you leave some things, such as IP or cashflow issues, for too long, it is risky. But you have to make a judgement call as to what to worry about.


“Some entrepreneurs get tripped up because they leave too much, while others are too conservative and waste too much time.


“A good mentor will say ‘worry about that in three or four months’ time. Concentrate on getting customers and cashflow until then.’”

6. More than one of them


Having a trusted mentor you can turn to and confide in is valuable but in reality it’s likely that you will have to turn to several different sources in order to get the best help available.


“With PushStart I have a cup of coffee with an entrepreneur once or twice a week and I’m always aware there’s someone more knowledgeable than me on certain areas,” says Antulov.


“One start-up hadn’t launched its product and asked me about patents. I’m not a patent attorney but I knew someone he could talk to.”


7. A long-term relationship


While you may need to be a little promiscuous to get the advice you need you should be aiming to have one or more mentors who are in it for the long haul.


“Sometimes, one hour with a lawyer or accountant, who is acting in a mentor capacity, can be enough to help you out for six months,” says Antulov.


“But one mentor who you can catch up with regularly can provide long-term benefits for your business.”


8. Two-way respect


Like any relationship, you want to be able to get on well with your mentor. An abrasive, grumpy mentor is the last thing you need.


“You want to have a rapport with your mentor,” says Birt. “Make sure that you get along with them like any new friend. Get them excited about working with you.”


But respect cuts both ways.


“Don’t be demanding and say ‘well, what can you do for me?’ ” advises Birt. “If mentors don’t like you they won’t bother seeing you again.”


Antulov adds: “It’s best if both parties benefit. Being courteous is one way to give back, as it were. Often start-ups don’t have cash or equity to give so courtesy goes a long way.


“I had a meeting recently with someone whose office is 10 minutes away. Within eight minutes I had an email saying ‘thank you for your time’. That was all the thanks I needed.”


9. A good network


Unless you have an advisory board, which should cover all of the bases when it comes to the start-up advice you need, you will require your mentor to utilise his or her contacts to deliver specialist advice.


“You will need a mentor who is well connected,” says Antulov. “Again, LinkedIn is a good tool. I invariably check anyone I meet on there and I will call common links to find out about them.


“That said, an hour with even a poorly-connected mentor should be of some value to you.”


10. Ask the right questions


You may have a myriad of quandaries and problems that require counsel, but your mentor isn’t a one-stop shop for all of your problems.


“You want to discuss important strategic stuff with your mentor, not ask them which accountancy software to use,” says Birt.

“Don’t waste your and their time. Ask them about your go-to market strategy, a partnership agreement you’re considering, a rebrand or how to cut down a long sales cycle. Things like that.”


Did you like this article? 

Sign up to the StartupSmart Newsletter to receive a daily news wrap-up straight to your inbox AND a free eBook!

Invalid Input

Comments (0)

Subscribe to this comment's feed

Write comment

smaller | bigger

Invalid Input
SmartCompany Smart Reads
  • Andrew Mason fired as CEO of Groupon: “I’m okay with having failed”
  • Sony releases an experimental Firefox OS developer upgrade for its Xperia E smartphone
  • A candle in the Spotify wind? Elton John hopes a little Crocodile Rock can save...
  • VIDEO: Mozilla shows off its first ZTE and Alcatel-built Firefox OS smartphones
  • ABC hack attack rings alarm bells: "Things are going to get worse"

Follow us

StartupSmart on Twitter StartupSmart on Facebook StartupSmart on LinkedIn StartupSmart on Google+

Subscribe to StartupSmart RSS feeds

Sponsored Links

Our Partners

SmartSolo sign up

Private Media Publications



Smart Company


Property Observer


Leading Company


Womens Agenda