So, you want to be a startup mentor

“Advice is like snow; the softer it falls, the longer it dwells upon, and the deeper it sinks into the mind.”

-Samuel Taylor Coleridge

From Silicon Alley to Silicon Wadi to Silicon Mountain (!), the world is full of both established and would-be technology hubs, trying to be or become the local alternative to the SF bay area original. Interestingly—as shown in papers such as this PhD thesis by Robyn Klingler-Vidra—if there’s one common policy theme between these innovation hubs, it’s that in terms of supporting government policy, they’re each adopting different ways to go about a similar end goal.

Conversely, at the grass roots level, I find it fascinating that many perceived elements of the “Silicon Valley culture” are being taken as is: industrial, half-finished-looking office design; hipster fashion, complete with beards, thick-rimmed glasses and sticker-filled Macbooks (check out Peter Thiel’s view on hipsters in his thought-provoking “Zero to One”); a wealth of ethically sourced food, with a special focus on high-end coffee, usually served by baristas who subscribe to aforementioned hipster fashion; and, of course, startup mentors.

I also have a beard, thick-rimmed glasses and a sticker-filled Macbook, and can appreciate the work of skilled baristas. More to the point, I’ve spent the last few years investing a sizeable amount of my free (and professional) time in mentoring and advising London- and Cambridge-based enterprise software and cloud computing startup teams, through accelerators, work-related initiatives, and independently. For someone whose formative professional years were spent in dotcom-era Israel’s startup community, watching the British ecosystem emerge as (arguably) the dominant European hub has been nothing short of exciting.

In the VC era, mentorship was simply about finding someone — through your investors or by other means — who has done this before, and who through their contacts, capital, and experience, can help you, at the very least, to fail more elegantly and bounce back more quickly. Think the late, great Bill Campbell to Steve Jobs and Larry Page, or Sean Parker to Mark Zuckerberg.

Then along came the first accelerators, and put mentorship onto a production line. Instead of a few deep relationships, you’d be exposed to many mentors as part of the program, which would (a) contribute directly to the venture in the classic way I described above, and (b) train the team in filtering out noise, getting their nutrients while drinking from a fire hydrant.

No doubt this model can still work well at a modest scale, within a sensible format, and in hubs where the local mentor community is still mostly made up of people who have loads of relevant, direct entrepreneurship, technology, or investment experience. As an example, at Springboard in Cambridge, which later became Techstars London, a handful of mentors—many of them from the local university’s tech community—were given ample time to develop conversations with the teams, and both sides were then asked to state who they’d like to “date again”. A good mentor pool, clear expectations, and the conditions for creating relationships.

Enter the rise of the regional hubs, and the subsequent boom in accelerators worldwide. I’ll put aside the question of “how much is too many accelerators”, but be sure to check out this report from VentureBeat; I want to focus on mentorship. Unlike Palo Alto, New York, or Tel Aviv, most of the newer technology hubs did not have a rich pool of people who had “done it before” to tap into, but as these hubs sought to lead in the race for the “Silicon Valley of ___”, I’d argue that the quantity of mentors became a priority.

So here’s the thing: mentorship is like any relationship in both the conditions that create it, and the practices that sustain it. Yes, you never know when The Lightning Bolt will hit, but you’d probably agree that it is statistically and logically foolish to *plan on* finding a life partner at a speed dating evening, or your next best friend at a packed local gym.

Likewise, if you’re given a handful of minutes with a founding team, sometimes concurrently with other mentors, all you’re probably doing is adding to the fire hydrant. You might remember what their idea was, but they will probably not remember your input, if you could get a word in, amongst the dozens of people they saw that day.

If you want to meet the right people, be picky about where you seek them out. Pick high-quality accelerators that are right for you, seek out funds and other organizations where mentorship isn’t a diluted activity, and use your own network to find opportunities that you may be uniquely placed to contribute to. This takes time and effort, but it’s never a waste.

On to sustaining relationships. First, understand that a mentor’s role is not the same as a coach’s, or an advisor’s. Do some basic research and figure out which model is right for you, and what this model is called right now in your hub of interest. Again, beware word inflation.

Second, expect, and even demand, a relationship. The team might be close to maxed out, stressed about burn rate, yes, all those things. But if you have something tangible to contribute to them, they will find time and you should workaround their constraints. And if they go silent, call them on it, try to understand why the relationship has stalled, or move on. Expressions like “what am I to you” and “where is this going” are suprisingly adaptable to a business setting.

Lastly, don’t expect to “get” anything out of it. If you’re interested in financial upside, invest. If you’re interested in coaching someone over time in a particular role or skill, open a coaching business. If you want to contribute specialised advice for a chunk of equity, advise. And if you’re interested in actually steering the business, join the team as either exec or NED. Mentorship follows the rule of karma — you really never know where good deeds will lead you.

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