Young entrepreneurs often think that mentors want to work with them because their idea is so awesome, so compelling that they just want to be associated with the next Mark Zuckerberg. Guess what? The best technology or idea doesn’t win and the odds of your idea being the next Facebook are infinitely small. I will not speak for all mentors but I advise startups because I just love working with entrepreneurs. I like their energy and passion. I enjoy helping them develop a sustainable business model. In the best cases it is like that puzzle you can’t put down until you solve it.
I meet with a lot of entrepreneurs, and because of my background in software and affiliation with the University of Michigan, many of these entrepreneurs are students or quite young. (For all you entrepreneurs out there - it is a great idea for you to have an experienced mentor or advisor to talk to about your startup. See graphic on the right from the Startup Genome Report.)
I fully appreciate that I am not Brad Feld or Fred Wilson, but many, certainly in Southeast Michigan, still seek out my advise on startups. Getting that first meeting …and getting a second one is, to me, about being respectful in your interactions. Mentors tolerate weak strategy, poor business models, etc. but if you remain coach-able and respectful you can develop a relationship. So here are some tips to help you show respect to a potential mentor/advisor.
…your mentor’s time.
My time is valuable. (Especially to me.) If you schedule to meet with a mentor, show up. Sounds obvious but I had 3 cases in 4 weeks. This includes phone calls too. I just blocked out time on my calendar that someone else could have actually used. If I show up to a coffee shop and you don’t, it’s going to be a long time before we meet again.
Be on time. I know everyone runs late. I certainly have, but I pick places to meet that I know have wifi so you can let me know you are running late. (P.S. 5 minutes is late. 15 minutes is disrespectful.)
Do some homework. If I can name five companies doing exactly what you are pitching and you can’t, not cool. Google it. It’s not that hard. I would also do your homework on your mentor. You can find out a lot about me from my bio on this blog, my LinkedIn profile, my Tech Transfer bio, and a Google search. A quick review would tell you that I am not the one to offer advise on the best regulatory path for your biologic. You can also use you research to make a personal connection to you mentor. A quick search for me will tell you I like beer, homebrewing, BBQ, and the Kansas City Chiefs. If we have any of those in common, that is a great connection.
Know what you want to talk about. Have a plan/agenda. Good agendas include (but are not limited to): help figuring out how you can make money off your idea, help figuring out how to develop the technology, developing a team, etc. Your plan should NOT be to pitch me a bunch of poorly thought through ideas until you get to one I think is interesting or “just getting to know me.”
If something changes don’t just keep the appointment. I have been working with a startup (that is tackling a big problem) that had scheduled to meet me. They sent me this message more than 24 hours before saying:
… We don’t want to waste your time and we realized that we need to have a group talk first. Can we reschedule with you once we have a better grasp on our goals and timeline?
Hell yes. Thanks for not wasting my time. If all you did was postpone, this would be different. In this case the team is very coach-able and respectful of my time.
Your mentor has a busy schedule. My student mentees seem to work on a different time scale. In most cases you cannot book my time later this week. If you wanted tomorrow at 1:00, you should have asked (at least) 3 weeks ago.
..your mentor’s communication channels
If someone gave you my cell number (I’ll shoot the bastard) don’t text me as your first correspondence. How the f*ck am I supposed to know who you are? Especially when you didn’t even give me your name. (This was not a U-M student for all you wolverines out there.)
Totally not cool.
…you mentor’s contacts
Yes. I know a lot of venture capitalists, angel investors and entrepreneurs. I value my contacts. I’ve worked hard to develop those relationships. I’m not going to give them to you because you ask. I will not just introduce you. By default, my introduction is an endorsement of your product/idea my. The bar is high there so don’t get you hopes up. I see hundreds of ideas in a year. Investors know that and since I don’t pass them all along any connection/introduction becomes a qualifier.
If I offer a connection and you accept, follow up quickly. It looks bad if I make an email introduction or I introduce you in person and you say you will get them some documentation and drop the ball. You make me look bad. If you are not ready to talk to that person, tell you mentor “I would love an introduction to Ms. Big, but at this point I need to do X before talking to her. Can I contact you next week when I will be ready for the introduction?”
I know this might be an obvious blog post, especially for experienced entrepreneurs. But given my personal experience as a mentor, I found that not all first-time or student entrepreneurs know how to engage with a mentor.