Why does founding a startup sometimes feel like the loneliest journey on the planet? Yes, you may be surrounded by family and friends who want to support you emotionally, but do they really understand what you’re going through?
The answer: Find yourself a mentor.
No “Yes Men”
Surrounding yourself with “yes men” is a stupid startup move. Instead, “all” you need to do is find someone who’s “been there, done that,” and is willing to tell you the truth. Don’t scoff. There’s true value having someone you can bounce ideas off of or who can offer a different perspective.
“Why wouldn’t you want to learn from the experience of others?” says Bob Godlasky, a mentor and counselor with SCORE OC in Santa Ana, Calif. SCORE, a nonprofit partner of the Small Business Administration, has more than 13,000 business experts and offers free mentoring and low-cost workshops nationwide. “There’s value in getting nonfamily, nonfriends’ points of view. It’s amazing what we can’t see until someone with no particular bias reviews the same picture or the same data,” Godlasky adds.
Janet Crowther and Katie Covington, founders of For the Makers, a website for DIY design and crafts projects, met while designing jewelry for various fashion houses, including Kate Spade, Anthropologie and Marc Jacobs. As first-time entrepreneurs, they had tons of product and design experience, but had never worked in the tech field. “We went everywhere and asked questions of anyone that would listen,” says Covington about the startup of their social community website. “We set out looking for validation of our ideas, but over time found mentors who can help with more specific questions.”
How do you find the right mentor for your business? “The only way to find mentors is to be out there, meeting people and asking questions,” Covington says. “We’ve met people at events, through friends, on Twitter and by following blogs. As long as you are respectful of time, mentors are almost always willing to help you and your company evolve. We look for mentors who believe in us, have experiences that are vastly differently from ours, and are always creating.”
Crowther and Covington were fortunate to find tech entrepreneur Cindy Gallop (pictured above), founder of the websites If We Ran The World and Make Love Not Porn. “Often the smartest, most interesting people all seem to know each other and are happy to make introductions,” Covington explains. “After talking with Cindy for 10 minutes, she was making parallels between For the Makers and a handful of other people she knew.” The companies don’t have a ton in common, “but both of our companies are about giving people tools to create something for themselves,” Covington says. “Mentors can use their experiences to frame your business in a unique way.”
And don’t worry about the relationship being too formal or structured. Gallop, like her mentees, is a busy entrepreneur. “Sadly, I cannot possibly mentor all the people who approach me asking me to be their mentor,” she says. “I mentor a small number of chosen startups on an ad hoc basis [for] sporadic, intensive hourlong discussions of a particular issue or consultation on a particular situation.”
Gallop’s advice for a great startup-mentor relationship: “Don’t just fall in love with someone’s reputation, perceived celebrity or name. Identify someone who could be directly relevant to what you want to do, or who is pursuing a similar vision. And someone who is likely to have the time and the inclination to help you.”
Slow and Steady Wins
And take it slow. “It’s like any other human relationship,” Gallop explains. “You need to have established a direct personal relationship and rapport with someone before you ask them to take the relationship to another level.”
The best mentor/mentee relationships are ones that are mutually beneficial. My mentee is a Jamaican entrepreneur who launched Study in Jamaica, a successful website that already ranks in the top 250 for traffic in her native county. I always get one or two takeaways from our monthly hourlong conversations. So if you’ve already hit phase two of the startup cycle, consider mentoring those just launching.