Innovation Blog

5 Ways to Optimize the Mentor-Startup Relationship 


A strong mentor can completely transform a startup by offering insights and tips that can only come from experience. As a startup founder, you could have a billion-dollar idea, but there are always obstacles that you aren’t prepared to handle as you develop it. Good mentorship means that those founders have the tools to move through those challenges, saving valuable time and resources.

As participants in an accelerator, startups often have access to a vast network of mentors whose expertise covers virtually every corner of the innovation world. And according to some veteran mentors, there are a few specific things that startups can do to take full advantage of those relationships.

1. Be ready to “flip the switch” and receive feedback

Anyone who has ever pitched their ideas to an audience knows that feedback is part of the process, often ranging from critical to constructive. Dr. Joe Bush, founder of the Worcester Clean Tech Incubator, said that the best startups are the ones that can go from pitch mode to feedback mode in a split second.

Dr. Joe Bush is the founder of WCTI, and he has been both a technical and social entrepreneur in cleantech since 2013. He was awarded the Worcester Business Journal 40-under-40 award and received an official citation from the Massachusetts State Senate for his economic development work in founding the Worcester CleanTech Incubator.

“You need to be really headstrong and confident in general to be an entrepreneur,” said Dr. Bush. “But then at the same time, to really get the most out of [an accelerator], you need to be able to flip a switch to confident presentation mode…then be able to flip the switch to receive input from many sources.”

He described the process as “a difficult dance between headstrong, confidence, poise and presentation, and then introspection, and humbleness to both ask for and then receive feedback.”

2. Prepare heavily for every meeting

When you’re so focused on growing your own company, it can be easy to forget that not everyone knows the ins and outs of your operation like you do. According to Jeremy Halpern, partner at Nutter McClennen & Fish LLP, that’s why mentors prefer when startups walk into a meeting prepared to provide a detailed – and relevant – overview of their business and their needs.

“[Mentors] often don’t have adequate time to do tremendous amount of preparation, so their response mechanisms tend to be in the moment,” said Halpern. “The more organized a mentee can be in saying – ‘here’s what I’m trying to explore, here’s what I already know, and here are the questions that I have’ – that’s really helps a mentor be more effective.”

3. Communicate early and often

Startups and mentors need to establish expectations of each other at the very beginning of their working relationship. Bob Stringer, founder of Crimson Seed Capital, LLC, said that clarifying expectations is “the number one criteria for building a good relationship.”

“It’s really important that you establish the ground rules and the timing,” Stringer said. “It would be a pain if companies expected the mentor to be somewhere or something that they aren’t.” He added that “continued communication and constant feedback going both ways is critical to both having fun and being helpful.”

Jeremy Halpern described frequent communication as a way to achieve “informational consistency.” For startups, keeping mentors in the loop is crucial, even in the long term.

“I like when people I worked with years ago just send me a quarterly update and say, ‘Hey, just reaching out to mentors to show progress,'” said Halpern. “That’s a really nice thing for me – when can look back longitudinally and see how you’ve helped a business.”

4. Avoid “mentor whiplash” – get everyone in the same room

Jess McLear, angel investor and member of Launchpad Venture Group, said that “mentor whiplash” can occur when a startup is getting feedback from a million different directions, sometimes getting conflicting directives from mentors.

“A good startup has the ability to put up that barrier – take that stuff in, but have enough sense of self and enough stubbornness to filter out what’s actually useful,” said McLear. “It’s a really hard thing to do.”

If you have multiple people weighing in on your ideas, McLear recommended that you meet with them all at the same time.

“If you can, get as many of your mentors into your meetings in one place,” McLear said. “I tell the companies every year. The most successful mentoring groups that I’ve been on have been ones that do that.” 

Scheduling group meetings not only saves time for mentors and startups, but also reduces the risks of redundancy and crossed signals. It can be tricky to find an hour of the day when everyone can fit a meeting into their busy schedules, but it will pay off.

5. Own up to your obstacles

A little humility goes a long way, mentors said. Although confidence is key, no company is flawless, and startups will need to be honest about the challenges they face if they want help from mentors to overcome them.

“The vast majority of startups are so passionate about their idea that they don’t want to hear that they’re thinking about it the wrong way,” said Jess McLear. She said that such passion is a good trait in a startup, but there’s a point where stubbornness can interfere with growth. One might call it measured passion, and it’s something that mentors keep an eye on.

“You can tell by the attitude of the startups how much success they’ll have in the accelerator/incubator purely based on their willingness and openness to ask for help,” said Dr. Joe Bush. “The companies that are a little too proud to open up and share some of the things they’re struggling with have a tougher time growing.” 

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