Flickr CC: Paula Marttila

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David Cohen, founder and CEO of TechStars, recently summarized his past six years learnings on mentorship at TechStars in his Mentor Manifesto. At times when at least Europe is experiencing a growth of accelerators based on mentor driven model, call it a bubble or not, I’d like to stress particularly one piece of advice by David: 

“Clearly commit to mentor or do not. Either is fine.”

Or to quote Fred Destin:

“Mentoring is difficult to do. It takes a lot of frontal cortex activity, and there’s some dangerous mentoring.”

Earlier this June I spent couple of great days visiting Boston investor and startup scene including Angel Bootcamp (read my in-depth post on advice on angel investing) and TechStars Boston and its Demo Day. (I also got to visit Cambridge Innovation Centre and Webinno pitch night. Thanks Ziad Sultan of Marginize for kindly hosting me!)

One of the great sessions I looked forward to at Angel Bootcamp was the highly insightful Preaching Words of Wisdom: the Art of Mentoring, panel moderated by BostonVC David Skok with Katie RaeSean Lindsay and Roy Rodenstein. All mentors at TechStars Boston, Katie being the MD of TechStars Boston. To quote David Skok: “We only got to the first slide!” after 40 minutes of great discussions and knowledge sharing.

Having actively mentored European top talent at Seedcamp over a year now, as being part of Springboard mentoring team, my experiences align both with Fred, David, as the advice shared by the panel. Here are my key takeaways.

Key Takeaways From The Panel Art of Mentoring

Much of the advice and learnings discussed on the panel echoed on David’s Mentor Manifesto, strange would be otherwise 🙂

“It’s your company”. Good mentors don’t tell what to do. Listen to entrepreneurs perspective before telling your own. As entrepreneur, you know your everyday business best. Listen and digest the advice given.

Focus: As a mentor, don’t add new priorities on the list, but help reset existing priorities and focus.

“Why are you doing what you’re doing?” Help entrepreneurs ask the right questions and dig deeper into what motivates them. Figure out how the decision making process works to be able to give better advice.

Mentoring is a human interaction. You can’t form authentic relationship if you’re not able to have an honest conversation. Sign up for relationship that can evolve.

Mixing the role of mentor and investor. David Skok urged the fact, that as an investor, be very clear when mentoring, that you’re not wearing an investor hat. As an entrepreneur, you shouldn’t feel that you have to take the advice because it comes from an investor. He also emphasized, that the first single most important help you as an investor can provide: Help hire right people. Adding talent is hard and crucial, thus it’s important to understand what talent the core team is lacking.

Have early on discussion with entrepreneurs on how the fundraising works.

Advice to mentors participating in accelerator programmes:

  • All mentors should know who the others are ( I find this being one of the most important things when mentoring in groups.)
  • Don’t get into group thing when giving advice! This will only hurt entrepreneur.

Advice to entrepreneurs:

  • “Give me the opportunity to say no!”. Many entrepreneurs don’t understand how to maximize mentors. Don’t be afraid to ask help – it might be easy problem to help out with. (Reverse: It’s still your company, don’t expect mentors to make your decisions or run your company.)
  • Don’t give equity to advisors before you have dated and they have given recurring value added advice! (Equity carrying advisory roles: 0,1 – 2% equity of the company) Note: You never ask for an advisory role, they are being offered by entrepreneurs!

TechStars Boston Demo Day

“Amazing event, a celebration of entrepreneurship, teamwork, and just plain passion and hustle”:

I can only agree with Bill Warner’s emotional tribute to Katie Rae.

While sitting on the front row listening to the teams, it stroke me how all the advice and learnings from the past day’s panel on mentoring literally came to life on stage at the Demo Day. Rarely have I seen such engaged, focused, yet relaxed teams delivering pitches in sharp and joyous ways. Team after team took the stage clear on message and with inspiring self confidence. This is not to confuse with the art of pitching: pretty words and polished metrics without profound teams and business understanding are nothing but shiny objects on stage.

And it wasn’t just the teams that were proud. Every single mentor who got up on stage to introduce a team was all smiling, all excited, and all acting like the proudest of parents. E.g. proud Fred Destin of Atlas Venture went on to announce its investment on the team Kinvey (BaaS, mobile backend as a service) right on stage, making the team Kinvey all happy faces.

Happy BadasS Campers: Kinvey team with Fred Destin

And the announcements kept coming during the day. All in all the companies raised $4 Million in funding at Demo Day. It was great to watch the investors lining up for the teams and listening to teams responding.

Hardi Meybaum of GrabCad “We’re fully subscribed”

Scott Kirsner of Boston Globe has the complete recap of all the teams and Ryan Kim of GigaOM has great rundown of health startups at Demo Day.

On Mentoring, Accelerators, State Initiatives and Building Startup Ecosystem

I strongly encourage everyone who is already involved in the startup community, or has the itch to join and participate in the ecosystem, to watch following 15 minutes of a panel discussion at #AccelerateMTL in Montreal, CA, on accelerators (Seedcamp, Y Combinator, 500 Startups), building an ecosystem, state funding and dangerous mentoring: “Oh, I’ve seen this before, this is how you need to run your business”: Fred Destin. Trust me, it’s a good one despite four white males in the panel 🙂

I have personally participated in mentoring groups where advice has started with “You must…”. With limited time on your hands to actually try to help the entrepreneur, these sessions become a death race, when at the same trying to help the entrepreneurs, as protect them by subtly mentoring the mentor to refocus the discussion. Phew!

Listen to Chris Albinson of Panorama Capital, Chris Arsenault of iNovia Capital, Robert Simon of Ariva Capital, Fred Destin of Atlas Venture moderated by Jean-Sebastien Cournoyer of Real Ventures.

I’m off to mentor my second Seedcamp Week in London starting tomorrow. Can’t wait.

Paula is Digital Product Advisor and Top 100 Women in Tech in Europe, focusing on Product, Go-to-market, and Internationalization strategies. Rated as one of the very best startup mentors in Europe, she has to date mentored over 150 digital technology companies on product, marketing and growth. Pick My Brain! is her fixed price service tailored to early stage startups, gender wage gap adjusted for female founders. Contact Paula for digital strategy work or book her as keynote speaker about #Startups #WomenInTech #GenderEquality #Entrepreneurship. Read more about her work and connect @Twitter, @LinkedIn. “You never learn anything when you speak, only when you listen”Roelof Botha / Douglas Leone, Sequoia Capital