a sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship


Anil Joshi, Uni­corn In­dia Ven­tures along with Anil Ksha­triya, IMT, ex­plore the re­la­tion­ship be­tween men­tors and mentee, in the con­text of the boom­ing startup land­scape.

“We make a liv­ing by what we get, we make a life by what we give.” - Sir Win­ston Churchill

Startup founders are self-made en­trepreneurs, but they too need hand­hold­ing, since they of­ten tend to fall in love with their ideas. This some­times makes them my­opic. They need a sound­ing board to bring them face to face with the ground re­al­i­ties of im­ple­ment­ing their busi­ness ideas.

The na­ture of ad­vice given by men­tors may not be wel­com­ing; in fact, most of­ten it is not some­thing that the founders may find read­ily ac­cept­able. So why do founders seek men­tors? What dif­fer­ence do men­tors make to the spirit of the ven­tures they nur­ture? Why do founders look for­ward to men­tor­ing

when they have tech­ni­cal and man­age­rial re­sources and ca­pa­bil­i­ties?

Men­tors are ex­ter­nal ex­perts who can of­ten see what founders fail to see within their own en­ter­prises. They have a far­sighted out­look to­wards a busi­ness plan, and the in­sight of look­ing at both the fi­nan­cial and non-fi­nan­cial as­pects of in­no­va­tive pro­pos­als. How does this help? Well, here are some hints an­swer­ing this moot ques­tion.

spot­ting trends in the cho­sen space of op­er­a­tion: Men­tors have a broad idea about how a par­tic­u­lar do­main in the startup space is tak­ing shape. They can sup­port the mentees by sug­gest­ing the di­rec­tion for the fu­ture course of ac­tion.

es­ti­mat­ing op­er­a­tional re­quire­ments of re­sources: Men­tors have an ad­van­tage over startup founders—the abil­ity to con­duct a com­par­a­tive anal­y­sis of where the busi­ness stands against sim­i­lar play­ers in the mar­ket. They can em­pha­size on the de­ploy­ment of re­sources which may ap­par­ently be miss­ing from es­ti­ma­tions drawn by founders and their team mem­bers.

de­cid­ing on in­vest­ments in phys­i­cal and dig­i­tal as­sets: It takes a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence to for­mu­late strate­gic moves in a volatile mar­ket. Men­tors help mentees by sug­gest­ing the mix of phys­i­cal ver­sus dig­i­tal in­vest­ments best suited for their busi­ness. Since the fi­nan­cial com­mit­ment for such an in­vest­ment is large, it is ad­vis­able that mentees eval­u­ate any pro­posal for such in­vest­ments crit­i­cally well in ad­vance.

pre­par­ing a backup plan: All ven­tures do not al­ways have one. The busi­ness idea de­signed to be ex­e­cuted in a par­tic­u­lar man­ner might not take off prof­itably. Hence, men­tors as­sume the role of con­sul­tants who pre­pare their en­trepreneurial mentees for Plan-B. In ab­sence of a back-up plan the pos­si­bil­ity of sur­vival be­comes very low.

ar­rang­ing for short-term fi­nance and work­ing cap­i­tal: The most dif­fi­cult part of run­ning a startup is that there is no as­sur­ance that the pre-de­fined bud­get can be ex­e­cuted as per ini­tial ex­pec­ta­tions. The op­er­a­tional re­quire­ments keep chang­ing to meet tac­ti­cal re­quire­ments, and the de­mand for short-term funds also varies over time. Men­tors, due to their vast net­work of fund­ing part­ners, know the best sources of fi­nance to meet such fluc­tu­at­ing de­mands of work­ing cap­i­tal.

Men­tors do not in­ter­fere with the day-to-day op­er­a­tions of the busi­ness, and hence can see things which em­ploy­ees and founders fail to spot. This is a big ad­van­tage for an early-stage startup which is fight­ing tooth and nail to gain cus­tomers and cre­ate its brand. But men­tor­ship is a dou­ble-edged sword, it may dis­please young founders who are con­vinced about their ideas. It might even dis­ap­point, and pos­si­bly dis­lodge a con­cept on which founders have worked painstak­ingly for hun­dreds of hours.

This is not a re­la­tion­ship of su­pe­rior and sub­or­di­nate, it is a re­la­tion­ship be­tween stu­dent and teacher. Here the men­tor acts like a torch­bearer for the mentee who has ev­ery right to stand up and ar­gue against the ap­pro­pri­ate­ness of the sug­ges­tions. There is no force or command, yet there is con­trol and com­mit­ment. Mentees like to chal­lenge their men­tors but they do not in­tend to beat them in any form. They ac­cept men­tors as lead­ers, but do not fear their enigma as a boss.

So, how do men­tors like to be iden­ti­fied as? Let us look at some of the key ar­eas men­tors fo­cus on while they act as friend, philoso­pher, and guide to early-stage en­trepreneurs.

men­tors like to main­tain friendly lib­eral de­meanor: They want their mentees to ‘work with’ them and not ‘work un­der’ them. The very rea­son why mentees feel like ask­ing for their sup­port is be­cause of their style of work­ing. They do not in­tend to be seen as a ‘man­age­ment con­trol sys­tem’ of the startup they men­tor. They de­fine the broad ar­eas of in­ter­est in the busi­ness right at the out­set, and con­tinue to main­tain an over­ar­ch­ing struc­ture of su­per­vi­sion in a friendly

The men­tor acts like a torch­bearer for the mentee who has ev­ery right to ar­gue against the ap­pro­pri­ate­ness of the sug­ges­tions.

man­ner. Men­tors are those friends who are will­ing to show mis­takes which are some­times be­yond the grasp of mentees.

men­tors do not try to be­come mi­cro­man­agers: Mi­cro­man­agers like con­trol­ling ev­ery­thing that comes un­der their scan of work. They like peo­ple to let them know about ev­ery sin­gle ac­tion taken by them, and want to be­come part of ev­ery story in the or­ga­ni­za­tion no mat­ter whether it re­sults into suc­cess or fail­ure of de­ci­sions. Men­tors are just op­po­site in na­ture. They would rather re­main out of the pic­ture than be­ing seen as a part of the de­ci­sion-mak­ing process. They like to make an anony­mous con­tri­bu­tion to the startup and its founders. Their idea of man­age­ment is very sim­ple; as the busi­ness flour­ishes they feel happy to be associated with it.

men­tors give sug­ges­tions, sup­port, and di­rec­tion: Well, this may sound the­o­ret­i­cal but there are peo­ple who can sug­gest with­out ex­pect­ing oth­ers to adopt any of the sug­ges­tions. They want to sup­port with­out hin­der­ing the nor­mal course of ac­tion ini­ti­ated by en­trepreneurs them­selves. This is not be­ing dis­en­gaged—it is about be­ing present with­out mak­ing noise. Men­tors never like the use of ‘force’ to get things done the way they en­vi­sion them.

men­tors like to keep things sim­ple: They like to hear founders speak­ing in jar­gon-free lan­guage which con­nects with real-world busi­ness needs. The pur­pose of keep­ing this sim­ple is to re­late ev­ery fas­ci­nat­ing busi­ness idea to the ground re­al­i­ties of con­sumer [be­hav­ior/pref­er­ences] and the mar­ket. Many men­tors want their mentees to think and act as cus­tomers of their own prod­ucts or ser­vices. Cus­tomers choose sim­ple things over com­pli­cated ones. Take the clas­sic case of Ap­ple. For sev­eral years, Ap­ple has been of­fer­ing lim­ited choices to its cus­tomers for all cat­e­gories of prod­ucts. Steve Jobs con­sid­ered Andy Grove of In­tel as his men­tor and role model. Grove al­ways be­lieved in ‘cre­at­ing the vi­sion’ of what cus­tomers want and not what they have. men­tors do not like to take credit for things they do not do: Like all good lead­ers, men­tors too like to share the credit of suc­cess with en­trepreneurs. But they do not like to take credit for things they have not con­trib­uted to. They want the mentees to de­velop con­fi­dence in their ac­tions, and there­fore want them to be­come fully en­gaged and em­pow­ered. Men­tor­ing at­tracts mean­ing­ful­ness only when the do­ers are seen by preach­ers (read men­tors) as ca­pa­ble and ac­tion­able peo­ple.

Mark Zucker­berg con­sid­ered Steve Jobs as his men­tor. Steve’s con­tri­bu­tion to­wards Face­book was his strong be­lief in the high qual­ity of teams which Zucker­berg was try­ing to nur­ture. He con­tin­ued to guide Face­book about how to lever­age po­ten­tial of peo­ple for driv­ing an in­no­va­tive con­cept like Face­book.

Jeff Be­zos of Ama­zon is known for run­ning an in­ten­sive men­tor­ship pro­gram, while he him­self acts as an in­flu­en­tial men­tor for sev­eral young en­trepreneurs work­ing in the tech­nol­ogy space. As Be­zos says, “I strongly be­lieve that mis­sion­ar­ies make bet­ter prod­ucts. They care more. For a mis­sion­ary, it's not just about the busi­ness. There has to be a busi­ness, and the busi­ness has to make sense, but that's not why you do it. You do it be­cause you have some­thing mean­ing­ful that mo­ti­vates you.”

Men­tor­ing is a bit like al­tru­ism. Though one may feel it does not make any eco­nomic sense, in re­al­ity, it ac­tu­ally makes enough busi­ness sense. To put it in the words of No­bel Prize-win­ning economist Her­bert Si­mon, “The in­tel­li­gent al­tru­ists, though less al­tru­is­tic than the un­in­tel­li­gent al­tru­ists, will be fit­ter than both un­in­tel­li­gent al­tru­ists and self­ish in­di­vid­u­als.”

They want the mentees to de­velop con­fi­dence in their ac­tions, and there­fore want them to be­come fully en­gaged and em­pow­ered.

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