I think of myself as an entrepreneur. I had an idea, saw it was unique and marketable, and set off to commercialize it.
My company designs algorithms that “think” and adapt in a similar way as the human mind does. The applications will someday range from remote medicine, to digital sports referees that never blow a call, to intelligent traffic control systems that could think on their feet, so to speak, to smooth traffic jams around an accident scene and more.
We now have a product to sell, but it’s been a long road. And looking back, it could have been a much smoother road. There are many lessons I learned the hard way that I wish I had learned the easy way. I wish I had sought out more mentors.
I had the idea and the dream, so why did I need a mentor? Scott Allen, in a great essay entitled The Value of A Business Mentor, tells it like it is:
“Where else are you going to turn? There’s no boss any more to turn to for advice or direction – maybe not even any employees yet. You’re flying solo. But you don’t have to. Everybody needs a good reliable sounding board, second opinion, and sometimes just emotional support.”
When you’re embarking on something new, you don’t know what you don’t know. You make mistakes that in retrospect seem pretty boneheaded. The buck stops with you when you lead a start-up.
A glance at my two titles will tell you that my credibility as a maker of business decisions already had two strikes against it. “Founder” and “Chief Scientist” don’t exactly scream “Wharton” and “Goldman Sachs” to the world. Luckily, I had some good mentoring at a critical time when I was about to make a truly bad move.
As a scientist, I wanted to publish a paper on my “secret recipe” for making these algorithms do their magic. Getting published, after all, is a major achievement for a research-oriented academic.
I showed the paper to the VCs who were funding my start-up, and, shall we say, I got the mentoring of a lifetime. It’s the kind of mistake I wouldn’t have made if I had spent some time with a savvy business mentor, along with designing my algorithms.
Early investors will always be mentors of a sort, and many of them are great at it. Some mentors in the tech field are the stuff of legend, successful entrepreneurs who are putting their money out to fund other ideas their experience has taught them they can believe in. VC sites on the web make them out as superheroes – and if you can get enough of their attention, they just might come to save the day.
One early-stage accelerator I know of that invests up to $250k to get ideas off the ground also boasts of a large group of “badass mentors” who get in the trenches with their companies.
Some angel investors that take an active interest in the companies they help financially have “entrepreneurs-in-residence” on the staff – usually experienced, successful startup execs who are not partners – who can provide mentoring assistance to less experienced CEOs.
When I launched Neuroblast, I needed the right mentor when we were in the earliest stages of our development, very far from bringing anything to market, requiring a long-term commitment with very uncertain prospects for reward. It was hard to make promises to anyone, but I fervently believed in what we were doing, and now that we have something to sell, I know that my instincts were right.
But if I could go back and reinvest some of the time I spent creating and nurturing the company, it would be in finding a mentor without equal who could have saved me from making several important errors. And if I were to reinvest some of the early money, it just might be to give a committed mentor some ownership and a seat on the board to assure a vested interest in the outcome.
It seems to me that a startup exec who wants mentoring is best served by casting the net far and wide to find an advisor committed to the role of helping develop the skills of a promising entrepreneur.
Maybe it’s the angel investor or VC firm that wants to work closely with a portfolio company. It could be a seasoned industry veteran who wants to give back (and maybe make a small investment on the side), and will understands the longer-term challenge of creating a credible, C-suite capable entrepreneur out of a naive scientist.
Good mentors can come from many places and be many types of people. The Google guys, for example, were mentored by their professors. SCORE, formerly known as the Service Corps of Retired Executives, is a group of 11,000 volunteers supported by the U.S. Small Business Administration who share their expertise in 62 industries with budding entrepreneurs.
Finding the right mentors should be in every start-up’s business plan. And when my time comes to be a mentor, I hope I will make the difference on some starry-eyed entrepreneur’s road to success.