Do you have one mentor? If so, you're doing things wrong, according to Lyle Stevens, co-founder of the social influencer marketing platform Mavrck, used by Sears and Unilever, among others. The company recently graduated from TechStars and, as a result, closed a $2.5 million Series A round of funding. None of this would have happened, Stevens says, without support from four different mentors, each with a separate area of expertise.
Here's the formula that worked for Mavrck. It should help any entrepreneur create the team of mentors that can help create success.
1. Find a mentor for each area of expertise you need to run your company.
Mavrck, for example, has four mentors. "We have one very technical expert, a second one who's expert on customer acquisition and marketing, a third who is focused recruiting and team building, and the fourth is expert in general operations and team management, and how to run a business."
The fourth mentor is one Stevens will turn to for help with the general challenges of entrepreneurship and work-life balance. "You can't go to your team to ask, "How do I balance both work and life?' " Stevens says. On the other hand, it's a great question for someone's who's been down the entrepreneurial path. "I asked, 'How did you deal with it? You had two kids and a wife.' "
2. Seek out potential mentors who've already signalled their willingness to mentor.
"The hardest part is finding people who are willing to give the time to be mentors," Stevens says. "If you just reach out cold to someone in the C suite of some huge company, the chances of them having time for you are very low."
So even before applying to TechStars, he contacted mentors listed on its website and asked if he could have a few minutes to pick their brains. (Though this approach worked for Stevens, it's worth noting that TechStars frowns on applicants contacting its mentors directly and says this could even hurt your chances of getting in.)
"From there, I would talk to CEOs of other start-ups and ask, 'Who's been really helpful for you in the past year or six months around X problem, and find mentors from there,' " Stevens advises. "You know these mentors are people who want to be involved."
He also says he found two helpful advisors by going through his alumni association. "They didn't become formal mentors but I talk to them at least once every quarter."
3. Be wary of mentors who request compensation.
At the very least, they shouldn't ask for equity or payment during your first conversation. "That's not really a mentor at that point," Stevens says. "Then you're a board member, a consultant, or an employee. It doesn't mean a mentor relationship couldn't grow into someone on your board of advisers or becoming an angel investor, but if someone sets that expectation from the beginning, you should be cautious."
4. Give potential mentors a quick test drive.
Just because someone wants to be your mentor doesn't mean that person has the expertise you need. To find out, Stevens suggests giving your prospective mentor the elevator pitch for your company, then asking him or her to respond with the top threats or opportunities you may have missed. Those who don't fully understand your industry or business may give you very generic responses and probably won't be much help as mentors.
But you may also get some highly useful responses. "We were talking to a tech person, and I said, 'Given the amount of data we're analyzing, what are the risks from an infrastructure standpoint?'" Stevens says. The potential mentor responded with advice about how Mavrck should architect its database and some points where its storage was likely to break down over time unless the company changed its approach.
A potential marketing mentor suggested that Stevens take a look at Reddit, which turned out to be a great platform. "We hadn't previously considered Reddit in our model. We were focused on Facebook and Instagram," he says.
5. Look for mentors who contradict each other.
"Contradictions among mentors happen almost always," Stevens says. "If you're doing it right, that should be the case. That's why you want different mentors, so they give you different perspectives. We look for people who are contrarian--we want someone to always poke holes in what we're thinking. You need people who balance each other--the worst thing is folks who all think the same way."
OK--but how do you make use of contradictory advice? "At the end of the day it's up to you or whoever leads that function to make a gut decision," Stevens says. "I'm going to go this way, knowing what the alternatives are."
6. Ask for a finite time commitment.
Knowing exactly how much time they'll need to devote to you--and that you won't ask for more--will make it easier for prospective mentors to say yes.
"We ask for at most one hour every other week, so two hours a month, max," Steven says. "But maybe a full day once every other quarter when we bring them to do a deep dive into a specific topic."
7. Stay in touch.
"It depends on you, as the founder, to initiate contact," Stevens says. He touches base every other week with his mentors. He also sends out an email every month giving company highlights. It goes to co-founders, investors, and mentors. "Down on the bottom we put issues we need help with," he says. "Usually the mentors are quick to volunteer their assistance."