Mentoring Startups is Hard: Five Ways to Be a Better Mentor


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the founder’s specific needs. This relies, of course, on the founder, who should articulate a clear objective for any particular mentoring session. It’s also the founder’s responsibility to find the most appropriate mentor to give advice for that specific objective.

Still, mentors should avoid giving general, expansive advice. I wince whenever I hear “Have you ever thought of…” openings to ‘advice’. Sometimes this is appropriate to try and get founders to think about things in a new way, but more often than not, the conversation is being hijacked, off an a tangent unrelated to the objective.

Successful mentors are often analytical people. They’re used to breaking complex ideas down and coming at problems from different angles. This is clearly useful in many circumstances, but be wary of overusing this ability in unconstructive ways.

The best mentors have the ability to ‘score’ their confidence level of the advice they give. In other words, they will say something like, “Listen, I’m just shooting from the hip here, I don’t truly know, but I think…” or “I’m pretty confident about this, because…”

3) Challenge Assumptions

In my view, one of the keys to getting a new business off the ground is to understand what is known versus what is unknown. Many new entrepreneurs are coached to act as if they know it all. After all, the thinking goes, if you don’t know, you’re not really ready to launch the business. (For documented not knowing, see business plan.)

In The Lean Entrepreneur, the book I wrote with Patrick Vlaskovits, we attempt to help founders articulate where their ideas are on the “Innovation Spectrum.” Those toward the disruptive side face more “unknowns” and those toward the sustaining side know significantly more about their markets. A central premise of the lean startup model is to divide your activities such that you focus on executing that which is known and learning that which is unknown.

Mentors can help here in a couple of ways:

First, openly challenge the founder’s thinking by … Next Page »

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Brant Cooper helps organizations big and small innovate. He is the co-author of "The Lean Entrepreneur," leader of San Diego Tech Founders, and a sought-after speaker, advisor, and mentor. Follow @

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  • FastMikie

    This is good stuff, Brant. Thanks for posting…

    I follow your advice on following up the mentoring sessions, but put the burden on the Protégé and ask them to summarize our meetings in writing and then I get the chance to see if they really got what I hope they got out of our meeting.

    All the best,