In December of 2012, I joined the Memphis startup ecosystem as a first-time founder. I pitched my startup idea, “an eHarmony for mentoring,” at Upstart’s 48 Hour Launch in a room full of strangers with nothing but a bundle of nerves and an idea written on a sheet of paper. This was a huge step for me. Up until that point, I had suffered from a horrible case of “ugly baby syndrome” – the fear of sharing one’s idea with others at the risk of rejection that keeps many individuals from taking the risk necessary to succeed in entrepreneurship.
For me, taking that risk has provided me with priceless experiences – most of all strong connections to mentors who have undoubtedly been my most valuable asset in navigating the challenges of building a startup. Having a culture of mentorship is important for any startup ecosystem, and in Memphis, the strong mentorship that exists is certainly a reflection of the larger “lift as you climb” culture.
Full disclosure, as someone who is building technology to manage mentoring programs, I did have a pre-existing affinity for mentorship prior to founding my startup. I am a product of mentoring programs, such as the Boys & Girls Club, and I truly would not be where I am today had I not had great mentors throughout my life. However, my belief in the power of mentorship has only grown as I have embarked on the entrepreneur’s journey. The journey of building a startup can feel isolating and overwhelming. It can be difficult at times for your friends and family to understand your irrationally optimistic belief in your billion-dollar idea and the concurrent reality of your ramen-noodle diet. Often behind the nods and smiles lies true bewilderment. Most people just don’t get it. Mentors do. They’ve been there, and they can see past your Oodles of Noodles and give you the encouragement and resources you need to stay driven while you navigate obstacles.
There are a couple of things that mentors provide that I have found truly invaluable as a founder. First, they provide an objective point of view. Building a startup is a fast-paced endeavor. You need to figure out quickly whether your idea has legs. That means you need someone other than your next-door neighbor and your Granny to validate your idea. Mentors can be an objective sounding board while challenging your ideas and providing you with new insights. As Bob Godlasky, a mentor and counselor with SCORE OC in Santa Ana, California pointed out, “It’s amazing what we can’t see until someone with no particular bias reviews the same picture or the same data.”
Second, good mentors provide connections. If I were to break down my current sales pipeline by referral source, more than a quarter of my leads would be from mentors. Mentors can help you break through the sales cycle by helping you cut through the red tape. Mentors can even become customers themselves. In my opinion, this is especially important for founders relying primarily on direct sales. Time is money.
If you are a founder with a great idea who could use a push in the right direction, I’d encourage you to get into the spirit of National Mentoring Month and get plugged in to a mentorship program in your community, such as Start Co.’s Start Mentoring Platform.
According to the Startup Genome Report from Blackbox, startups that have helpful mentors, track metrics effectively, and learn from startup thought leaders raise 7x more money and have 3.5x better user growth. Simply put, founders that learn are more successful. So as my imaginary best friend Kid President would say “get your learn on” and get connected to a mentor.