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INCUBATORS

How To Deal With Marginal Mentors

The "mentors" who pop in and out of accelerator programs are a mixed bag at best. Here's how to get the most out of them.
There’s an overabundance of highly-verbal and successful people who are flattered and excited about the prospect of giving sporadic advice to young entrepreneurs. That doesn’t mean they’re actually of any use to your company.
 
I say “sporadic” because even in the best incubators and accelerators, the mentoring process can be hit-or-miss. People drop by for an hour or two, and they’re rarely up-to-speed on the particular business or issue on the table. They listen briefly to the entrepreneurs, nod sagely, take their best shot at some quick suggestions, and leave. The next guy dropping in to meet with the same team might have completely opposite advice. 
 
I’m not really sure what entrepreneurs gain from this. I believe that when you take the time to give someone advice (and you take their time as well), you’re obligated to do what you can to make sure that it’s not just lip service. 
 
It’s frightfully easy to tell someone else what to do, because nothing is impossible for the person who doesn’t have to do it himself. What’s more, a lot of “mentors” will tell you to take a hard line on something and stand up on principle. But when push comes to shove, they’re long gone. A principle really isn’t a principle until it costs you something. 
 
Money only confuses things. As we all know, money doesn’t make you wise or make you a class act. I realize that rich entrepreneurs sometimes complain that when you have money, people tend to doubt your talent. But in many cases that’s exactly the case. And I find it really hard to pay much attention to the advice of someone with no skin in the game. My favorite trader (I realize that’s somewhat of an oxymoron) likes to say that until you have a position, all you have is an opinion. I agree. 
 
Any entrepreneur’s time is precious and constrained. If you’re going to spend it listening to anyone for any substantial amount of time, make sure that they know what they’re talking about and that the conversations are worth your time. 
 
Here are a few tips on dealing with marginal mentors:
 
1. Filter As Simon and Garfunkel said so well in “The Boxer:” “A man hears what he wants to hear/and disregards the rest.” Listen carefully, take everything with a grain of salt, and try to determine why this particular person would know what he or she is talking about. Then take the best and leave the rest.
 
2. Play along If the person is also a prospective investor in your business, and one that you think you’d like to have, remember that listening to advice very often accomplishes far more than actually heeding it. Be patient, nod your head a lot, agree with their observations, and then go on and do what you think is best. 
 
3. Stay Skeptical Try to remember that personality and rapport are not substitutes for credibility and knowledge. They make for pleasant conversations, but just because someone’s a really good guy only rarely also means that he knows what he’s talking about. These are people you’d happily buy a drink for, but never lend any money.
 
4. Do as They Say, Not as They Do Finally, keep in mind the strange paradox that there are people who can give you extremely useful and valuable information and direction, but can’t get out of their own way in their own businesses, and would be the first to admit that they really don’t do a good job of taking their own advice. Don’t follow their examples, but listen to their suggestions. 
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Last updated: Sep 25, 2013

HOWARD TULLMAN | Columnist

Howard Tullman is the CEO of 1871 in Chicago where, at the moment, 260 digital startups are building their businesses every day. He is also the general managing partner of G2T3V, LLC and Chicago High Tech Investors – both early-stage venture funds; a member of Mayor Emanuel’s ChicagoNEXT Innovation Council; and Governor Quinn’s Illinois Innovation Council. He is an adviser to many technology businesses and an adjunct professor at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management. @tullman

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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