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Why Mentorship Matters to the Startup Community

Patrick Riley
Sep 11, 2019

Mentors and mentees have a lot to gain from each other.

  • Mentors are integral to founders’ success because they can provide different opinions, a helpful community and valuable connections.
  • Mentors have as much to gain from mentorship as their mentees.
  • A strong mentorship network strengthens the global startup community.
  • To lend a helping hand to those looking for mentorship, get personal, give advice at the right time, and place and create connections.

In business, the line between success and failure is often paper-thin. The more you learn from those who’ve walked both sides of that line, the better your chances are of staying on the right side of it.

Entrepreneurs know this instinctively. A recent survey by global finance, technology, and data firm Kabbage Inc. revealed that 92% of small business owners acknowledge the impact of mentors on their businesses’ long-term viability. Yet nearly two-thirds of owners lack any professional guidance when launching their businesses. 

It’s not difficult to see why there’s a disconnect. While many seasoned professionals acknowledge the impact of this gap, those professionals aren’t necessarily offering up their time to other growing companies. If more experienced individuals could truly see the benefits and far-reaching effects of mentorship, though, more would be quick to accept – and offer – guidance themselves. 

Mentorship molds careers.

I’d be lost without the mentors I’ve had and the lessons they taught me that have guided my entire career. My very first mentor, Brian Hamil, was the national chair of biomedical services for the American Red Cross, and we met while I was working alongside the organization’s president. When I was just 22 years old, he taught me business lessons big and small, like how to handle a growing workload, navigate internal politics and even influence my boss. More importantly, he taught me how to hold to my values close and let them guide my work.

I wouldn’t be who I am today without Brian and many others who have invested their time in me. When my management style needed work, I needed advice on hiring and firing, or I simply required more resources to grow, mentors were a vital part of it all.

My story is like so many others. Now, as the CEO of an organization that connects startups with the human and financial capital they need to support and foster their growth, I’ve watched more than 12,000 startups go through one of the more than 110 accelerators in our community. The main reason 85% of them make it past the critical five-year mark? Mentors. 

I believe there are three primary reasons mentors are integral to founders’ success:

  1. Different opinions: If entrepreneurs knew all the answers starting out, a greater number of businesses would succeed. Early on, you have to see your business from other angles, so having more voices in your ear means having more experience at your fingertips. At GAN Accelerators, startups have an average of 167 mentors, giving them access to more knowledge and ideas than they’d ever have found on their own.
  2. A helpful community: From mentor relationships, startups often cement a few invaluable, long-term partnerships. These form a lasting community that will help them long after the startup phase ends. We’ve even found that many of our accelerator startups ultimately remain in the city where they went through a program. Why? Community has a strong pull, and their community is there. 
  3. Valuable connections: Mentors can do more than teach you the ways of business – they can connect you with clients. And there’s no better connection than someone who already wants to see you succeed.

This access proves invaluable for any young startup facing the many land mines in their way during those early years of business.

Mentorship gives back.

Mentorship isn’t a one-way street, though. In truth, mentors have as much to gain from the relationship as those they teach.

Sometimes, the give-and-take is direct. A mentor might work with a startup and land their next gig. But if landing a job is the mentor’s primary motive, returns will be limited in the long run.

Psychologist and Wharton professor Adam Grant argues this in his book Give and Take. Grant describes three types of people in the world: givers, takers and matchers. Takers might give but only minimally and with the sole objective of getting what they want. Matchers, somewhat similarly, expect to receive in kind for what they give. But givers share their knowledge and connections freely without any expectation of return. 

Which of these types do you think is most successful? While it might seem counterintuitive, Grant’s data shows that it’s the givers. Despite not directly pursuing returns, those who freely give are consistently rewarded with promotions, profits and more. Why? Because all those they’ve helped want to return the favor. 

Mentorship strengthens the startup community.

The advantages of mentorship extend well beyond the immediate mentor-mentee relationship, too. A strong mentorship network makes for a stronger global startup community.

Sharing knowledge is a major part of this. As mentorship increases, more startups will launch with access to knowledge and expertise that the startups of earlier generations lacked. This makes for a better-informed startup community and one that is less likely to make the mistakes of those that came before.

More important than knowledge, though, are the connections that the best mentors help startups make. When mentors make not only their own knowledge accessible to young entrepreneurs, but also the experience of their entire networks, they strengthen connections across the whole startup community. New people are continually brought in from the sidelines and into the mix of supporting startups. 

Our community of accelerators provides valuable services to thousands of startups with 9,692 mentors worldwide, and staff at those accelerators, much like me, see this as so vital because of the help we’ve all received along the way. It’s the ultimate measure of mentorship success – those who’ve been mentored choosing to make mentorship available to others.

Good mentorship is not complicated. 

If a thriving global startup community is the goal – and it is – more business leaders must take on the mentorship role. Becoming a good mentor doesn’t have to be a burden, though. Here are three simple but powerful ways to lend a helping hand: 

1. Get personal. 

Anyone can write a blog post about scaling a new company. However, if you instead give specific advice on scaling to a company that puts cameras on the bottom of airplanes and operates in Denver, that takes skill and sets you apart as a helpful partner who is tailoring its expertise to meet the needs of mentees. Good mentors give particular advice to particular startups in particular industries and cities.

To personalize your style of mentorship this way, ask your mentees exploratory questions. What does success look like for them? What do you hope their development will look like? What steps will it take to get there? Be as specific as you can to see fantastic outcomes.

2. Choose the right time and place for advice. 

Mentorship is a process, and overwhelming a new CEO with too much advice at once subverts it. It’s unreasonable to expect anyone to receive and integrate all of your advice without time to try it out or weigh it with any other advice they’re getting, too. Being a good mentor means knowing when the time is right to step back and when it’s time to offer guidance.

To avoid over-advising, establish a regular rhythm of communication with your mentee. Set a regular meeting monthly, weekly, or otherwise for in-depth discussion. Outside of that, agree on parameters for what kind of communication works best. For example, be open about what kinds of questions you can tackle over email instead of through a true meeting. This will protect your mentee from too much advice and protect you from taking time to field a barrage of minor questions.

3. Create connections.

Once again, the best mentorship extends beyond mere knowledge sharing. As you grow to understand the company you’re mentoring, think about your network. Who do you know that could help this company with its specific needs?

While you might be connecting your mentee with potential customers, there are many other helpful resources your network could provide, like strategic engagements or potential investors who’d be much more likely to take a referral from someone in their network seriously than someone outside of it. Connections compound the value of your mentorship 10 times over. 

Mentorship is a long game.

We hear again and again that startups are creating jobs and building the future. But for them to do this, they need more support than just posts on Medium or even great books for guidance. Their success depends on strong, engaged startup communities, and those communities depend on actively involved mentors to make things thrive.

Creating that community doesn’t happen overnight. It requires mentors who are playing the long game and not just looking for quick returns. In fact, it means acknowledging that returns aren’t even guaranteed. But as more leaders accept the responsibility of mentorship, more startup success is sure to follow. 

For the best mentors, that will be reward enough.

Image Credit:

fizkes/Getty Images

Patrick Riley
Patrick Riley is the CEO of GAN,a highly curated community of the world’s best independent accelerators, a growing set of innovative and values-minded corporate partners, and an investment arm called GAN Ventures. GAN’s sole purpose is to connect the world’s innovators so that startups around the world have access to the human and financial capital needed to build powerful businesses and make a meaningful impact, wherever they call home.