Mentor or Content Expert?

Telemachus and Mentor

January 10, 2013.  Bob Metcalfe shared yesterday a syllabus from a Harvard undergraduate course called “Introduction to Innovation and Entrepreneurship” – similar to Longhorn Startup Lab at UT Austin, but with the project version of the course aimed either at starting a real company or preparing to enter a significant business plan competition.   One requirement of the students stood out:  “In addition to the course’s faculty, students MUST engage a ‘content expert’ to help focus the projects and to add real world context and expertise. Usually this will be an outside sponsor from a business, investment firm, not‐for‐profit organization, or academic research entity.”

Spelling out this requirement for a content expert is a great idea.  It’s too common for undergraduate, startup weekend, or other young teams to look at themselves as the audience for the next great idea and come up with flyweight apps that don’t have the potential to be real business opportunities.  In other words, if you’re the entrepreneur and the content expert is your roommate, you’re probably not going to solve a big problem with your venture.

The academic leaders of a course like Longhorn Startup Lab can teach the basics of entrepreneurship through their own wisdom and a parade of accomplished guest lecturers.   They can pound into the students the notions of the lean canvas and can turn them all into rather good presenters over the duration of a semester.  Certainly mentors can reinforce that, but the greatest need is exactly what is described in the Harvard requirements – someone who actually knows something about the market that a team envisions.   And, knowing something means not just understanding the structure and statistics of a market, but rather actually having relationships with the executives who are the important players.  I’m somewhat of a car guy.  I’m pretty well read on the automotive industry, but there’s no one who will respond to my call or email in Sergio Marchionne’s office if I have an innovative idea for the next Dodge Ram pickup.  So, don’t classify me as a content expert in that field.

I’ve seen this idea work in the real world of MeetMeTix, where I serve as chairman.  The majority of our investment has come from people who know the ticketing industry and have made money in it.  They were able to evaluate the deal on its merits and not just on my charm and good looks.  That circumstance has already opened many unanticipated avenues for us, and, frankly, it’s given me some extra comfort that our concept has the potential we envisioned.  We’re a long way from counting any chickens, but we have stacked the deck in our favor with the expertise and personal connections of our investor group.

Mentor groups are now forming for the spring semester at Longhorn Startup Lab and other venture accelerators in Austin and Atlanta.  I’ve had lots of calls from seasoned folks asking me how to get plugged into an opportunity like this, and I’ve made known the recruiting sessions that seem appropriate.  If you are interested in being a mentor, here’s some specific advice:

1.  Be choosey.  I have personally decided to become more discriminating in choosing companies to mentor.  The opportunities are plentiful, and for me it is always an honor to be asked.  However, the supply of ideas is such that I think I’m doing everybody a favor by picking ones where the team leaders seem genuinely interested in me and whose concepts both intrigue me and are in areas where I can legitimately claim some “content” bona fides.  If I’m going to spend time helping a venture, I just want to make sure that time is well spent from everybody’s perspective.

2.  Prepare to be ignored.  It is highly discouraging to any mentor is to have advice ignored and particularly to have specific introductions left untended, but that happens.  Any group of mentors is likely to provide lots of conflicting advice, and your entrepreneurial team will be forced to conclude that some suggestions have more merit than others.  Most formats I’ve seen give the mentors little opportunity to meet each other as a group, so they aren’t able to form a consensus and learn from each other.  And, in many cases there is no content person to serve as the natural leader.   That’s not to mention that you may be working with undergraduates who have lots of competing academic and social pressures and are still in a rather early stage of maturation. 

3.  Develop a methodical approach to the task. It’s very good for you to engage with your teams on a regular basis – periodic reports or recurring meetings for example.  You’ll want to keep some share of your attention routinely focused on the project so you won’t have to be retrained from scratch at every touch point.  If you allow a team to have little or no interaction with you, no one benefits.  You may have to be forceful on that point.  In the academic environments like LSL, there are required weekly reports that will come your way, all about 1 minute before the prescribed midnight deadline on Friday.

4.  Pick folks you like.  There’s also always the question of chemistry.  It helps enormously if you as a mentor like a team as much as you like their idea.  By the same token, if the mentees like you, they’ll be much better at drawing from you the help they need.  And if the chemistry is not there, that’s just life; move on. 

5.  Be the real-time advisor.  Bob Metcalfe made this point at a reception tonight for potential mentors for the Longhorn Startup Lab.  He noted that the professors can spell out the generalities, but it’s more often the individual mentors who are readily available when an urgent question arises as to what exactly to do tomorrow.  Those of you who are extremely technical may often be able to come to the rescue when projects hit the inevitable roadblocks.  You may or may not be the content person in the group, but at that moment you are probably the most valuable.

You can derive many benefits as a mentor for startup teams.  In an academic setting, the course material and class time may help you learn or relearn concepts of great value in your daily career, and all tuition free for you.  Getting to know other mentors is another fine perquisite of this type of endeavor.  I can point to many specific examples of that in my own case.  And, never underestimate the raw energy that flows from a bunch of motivated students; it’s fun to be around them, watch them grow, and help them where you can.

<image of Telemachus and Mentor from Wikipedia Commons>