We couldn't have started our company without a great roster of mentors. We didn't even know it, but we were breaking all the rules. (You should, too!)
We have an amazing roster of mentors. In fact, we couldn't have started Altruette without their help and their immense wisdom.
Some of these people are folks we've known for years but more and more we find ourselves turning to folks we've never even met. We've essentially cold called (or "cold" emailed) these people for advice and have asked them to continue helping us. We thought this was something most start-ups did, but the more we talk with other entrepreneurs, the more we realize how rare this is.
It got us thinking about the formality that surrounds the role of a mentor or advisor. As former journalists, it's second nature for us to call up strangers or acquaintances and ask them a bunch of questions. And it's made reaching out to advisors a no-brainer. But for many others we talk with, it can be an awkward and intimidating experience.
While it's becoming easier to find mentoring programs at large companies, there's no perfect place for entrepreneurs to turn to find someone to take them under their wings. So it got us thinking that for those in the start-up world, it's time to become more open-minded about how we define and relate with our mentors. Here are four mentoring myths we think need to be debunked:
1. A mentor must be older than me. Too often, when we think of a mentor-mentee relationship, an image of a sage master training the young and naïve springs to mind. (Think Mr. Miyagi and Daniel-san!) But don't discount the young guy who is working on his own start-up at the table next to you at Starbucks. A mentor doesn't need to be older or hold a title that's fancier than yours. They just need to be wiser than you in an area you need help in. At Altruette, we've found a freelancer who now also serves as a mentor to us on all things related to advertising. Nicole is at least 10 years younger than us, but is years ahead when it comes to marketing initiatives. So when we need to brainstorm an idea, we simply call her up. On several occasions she's taken our question or seedling of an idea to her friends and gotten us nearly instant feedback.
2. You can only have one mentor. There's no such thing as two-timing your mentor. In fact, we think having just one mentor is a bad idea--it's just not enough outside advice for a start-up. Each person you admire professionally will have different things to teach you so why would you want to limit yourself to one person? At Altruette we rely on nearly a dozen folks. Each has different experiences to share with us and helps us in different ways. Some might be short-term advisers while others have become lifelong confidants.
3. You need to live near your mentor. A mentor used to be someone you'd see at the office, golf with, or meet for drinks on a regular basis. But as we work more remotely, this is changing too. As technology improves, the formality and geography around mentoring will also continue to change. Julie's cousin Mitchell runs Los Angeles-based Swatfame, a clothing manufacturer that sells under various brands to multiple department stores. When we were beginning to build Altruette, Julie kept saying how she wished she lived closer and could apprentice with his team to learn the trade. The only problem was that Swatfame is based in California and Julie lives on the East Coast. So while that wasn't geographically possible, Julie has turned to Mitchell often for advice via email. It would be great to spend more time watching what he does, but for now it's extremely helpful to be able to email him a question and get his feedback.
4. Being a mentor requires a major time commitment. Thanks to email and social media, we can now more easily connect with a mentor and do so without taking too much of his or her time. Some of the most talented people you know and would like as a mentor are probably also the busiest. Even if they want to mentor you, they probably can't give you a significant amount of their time. If there's someone you'd like advice from, reach out via email and state upfront that you don't expect too much of their time. It could turn into a bigger commitment if your mentor has the time, but it allows them the freedom to just lend advice from time to time.
While having a traditional relationship with a mentor is still ideal, we're convinced that a modern mentoring relationship can prove to be just as helpful and a lot more convenient for everyone.
What lessons have you learned from mentors? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter.