An entrepreneur, the old saying goes, is someone who jumps off a cliff and builds a parachute on the way down. If this is true, no wonder so many founders are desperate to connect with people who appear to have mastered the fine art of parachute construction.

Great mentors, in others words, are often the difference between success and splattering full force into the ground. Which is why so many founders aim high, trolling for top VCs, big name success stories, and startup royalty to advise and reassure them.

It's an understandable impulse when you're doing something hard and scary to look for the most impressive help you can get. But according to the co-founders of Rent the Runway, the wildly successful designer clothing rental company that's rumored to be worth $1 billion, that's actually often the wrong approach. When you're in the early days of starting a business, aim much lower, they advised fellow entrepreneurs at the 2017 Project Entrepreneur NYC Summit recently.

In-the-trenches advice

"When someone is too senior, or too far away from the stage that you're in, they become inspirational, but they stop being helpful," Quartz reports co-founder Jennifer Hyman saying. "[W]hat Jenny and I needed at the beginning of our company was tactical help. I mean, I remember that we didn't understand or know in the early days how were we going to pay our employees, how do benefits work, how do you pick what PR firm to work with."

In practice, that meant the most useful mentors for Hyman and her co-founder, Jenny Fleiss, were fellow entrepreneurs whose businesses were only slightly further along than their own. Which is also why, now that Rent the Runway has taken off, Hyman and Fleiss make a point of nurturing founders coming up behind them.

As an example, Hyman offered her own recent interaction with the founder of a smaller seed-stage company. "[Hyman] helped re-write her fundraising deck and plans to go with her to pitch investors, sales being one of Hyman's strong suits and something the founder she's mentoring, a scientist by training, struggles with," explains Quartz.

This sort of in-the-weeds advice of which slide to put where in a pitch deck is not the sort of thing that most mere mortals would feel comfortable asking the Mark Zuckerbergs of this world. Having these sorts of icons as mentors might make your fellow entrepreneurs jealous (and their connections would certainly be valuable in opening doors), but you'll also need more down-to-earth advice from someone who has gone through similar struggles much more recently.

That's actually great news for the great majority of founders who don't have Elon Musk on speed dial. Rather than think of your lack of A-level connections as holding you back, focus on building ties to entrepreneurs just a step or two more advanced in their business journey than yourself. Not only are they far more accessible, but they'll also probably benefit you more at this stage of your journey.

Published on: Dec 13, 2017