There’s a reason the show Shark Tank has that name – the brutal waters of business are even more turbulent when you’re a startup. Having an individual – or even better, a group – to coach you through those waters can be life saving. But in unfamiliar waters, how do you know the difference between winning advice and tips that lead you toward shipwreck? Be on the lookout for these traits in your mentor to keep your horizons clear.
1. Faith, trust, and more trust
The relationship between mentor and mentee works both ways. All the good advice in the world won’t help if both parties don’t trust each other.
“One of the biggest challenges in the mentorship is that there needs to be respect on both sides. Respect what the mentor brings to the table,” Bala Girisaballa, CEO-in-residence at Microsoft Accelerator, tells Tech in Asia.
Respect means feeling connected even when you’re not in conversation. “At times, what an entrepreneur seeks is a sounding board,” says Kalaari Capital managing director Vani Kola. “Articulation goes a long way towards facilitating clarity of thought. Hence, accessibility is of paramount importance.”
You and your startup coach should be open enough that dropping a line to each other means you’ll get a quick response. Communication should feel comfortable, not like pulling teeth.
2. Come out of your comfort zone
Having open communication between founders and mentors shouldn’t mean that it’s so casual that there’s no opportunity for growth. You should be prepared to receive constructive criticism – that’s what your guide is there for.
“Whether a given piece of advice is good or bad is known only in hindsight,” explains Vani. “However, I believe that a mentor should be comfortable with giving advice that may not be particularly pleasant.”
Judge a good mentor by how many questions he or she asks, not the number of answers you get, says Bala. You should feel like your advisor is opening you up and changing your worldview as well as your company’s.
3. Understand your mentor’s motivation
Not every startup is going to get a Yoda – advisors come with varying intentions. Some of them are doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. Some want to share your journey. Some want a piece of the funds. That doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. It helps you have a better idea of who you’re dealing with, and how he or she can help you best, says Bala.
Look into your future Obi Wan’s background. Have some idea about your own goals and how they can line up with the person coaching your company.
4. Check your receipt
A good sign of a good advisor is progress in your own startup, says Sairee Chahal, founder and CEO of Sheroes, an online career network for women. That doesn’t mean that all of your company’s success is due to the people advising you, but it’s worth asking yourself if you walk away from conversations feeling productive and positive.
“Does [the mentor] shift your own status of reflection into a more positive zone, and does [he or she] enable you in some direction, to reach out, to push yourself more?” Sairee asks.
Vani takes a more direct approach, saying startups should look for tangible benefits that have resulted from the relationship with an advisor. “Whether the mentorship provided is good or not will be visible in the amount of time the entrepreneur spends with his/her mentors, and the degree of enthusiasm he/she exhibits,” she says. “With the right set of mentors, the effect will be visible in terms of maturity and confidence.”
5. Does it feel right?
When all else fails, go with your gut. If it’s telling you that something’s not working out between you and your startup coach, it’s worth exploring, says Sairee.
“If your own sense of self and your own sense of state feels encroached upon, or if you feel […] it’s not enabling enough, it’s not working,” she explains.
A startup coach’s job isn’t to change you or the central theme of your company – it’s to help bring out the best in both.
This blog was first published on Tech in Asia