Mentors And Advisors: A Founder’s Support System

You become lonely on your journey towards building a successful product just like any other entrepreneur out there. But few think of nurturing mentoring relationships to gain support during the hard times. Pursue acknowledging your mentors, turning them into investors or putting together an advisory board as the secret ingredient that helps create a successful startup.

An entrepreneur’s life isn’t easy. Whether you’re just setting out to build your first product or have been through the experience of running a business a few times, the truth of the matter is you’re in for a bumpy ride. You have to juggle administrative tasks, think about your business strategy, worry about cashflow, navigate collaborators and employees, foster partnerships and please investors. And above all else, you have to make sure what you’re providing is of value to your customers. 

Despite the pressure you may face on a daily basis, you find great reward in what you’re doing. In fact, there’s an unstated badge of honour in making it on your own. Entrepreneurs, as you’re probably aware, have a weakness for imagining themselves successful overnight. But there’s a trap there that you, an aspiring entrepreneur, need to be aware of.

When you focus too much on making it on your own power, you’re in for a very lonely journey.

And alone is what makes you more likely to burnout and more likely to lose your inner stability as the rollercoaster of a new business throws you up and down. Alone is what makes you blind to the trappings of your own thinking. And if there’s one thing an entrepreneur can’t afford to do, it’s becoming cut off from what’s going on around them. 

Why loneliness is bad for entrepreneurs

In 2012, Ben Horowitz called the downs an entrepreneur has to face The Struggle. He described it as the feeling you get when you ask yourself why you even started down this road. It’s the feeling you get when you can’t see a way of going forward or scaling down your business. When you’re an entrepreneur who is in over their head, you will lose your ability to communicate efficiently, to listen, and to make that one more step forward that will take you closer to a successful business.

Medical research confirms that when you feel lonely, you impair your health by raising levels of stress hormones and inflammation in your body. This, in turn, makes you more likely to be affected by heart disease, arthritis, Type 2 diabetes. You may develop dementia or depression and become susceptible to suicide attempts. Perhaps the most surprising finding was that your perception of being alone had a stronger correlation with your health than the number of relationships you have at any given moment in your life. And doesn’t that sound familiar?

When you are an entrepreneur, it’s likely you’ll feel alone, despite being surrounded by people.

In truth, the hardships of being an entrepreneur have come up in the startup scene recurrently in the last years. From Y Combinator’s president’s insights into founder depression, to personal stories you can find on Medium, there’s a balance that hasn’t been struck yet in talking about stress and depression in the entrepreneur’s life. Personal stories abound, but actual research on the topic is fragmented. We know support services are out there – and both professional and personal support systems can be set up. But the truth of the matter is that for a support system to work, you first need to admit it’s something you need. So let’s start with this simple admission: yes, you need help in bringing your idea to life. And yes, of course there are people out there who are willing to give you a hands up.

You become a better entrepreneur when you share what’s on your mind

Many believe building your own startup is a solitary journey. They worry about someone stealing their idea or about a co-founder leaving when they’re most needed. So why would you make the effort to build yourself a support system? The simple answer is that you need the support system because it is a solitary journey. You will have to make many decisions along the way, decisions that will shape how your product looks and how your work pans out.

Trying to externalise decisions is a recipe for disaster, but getting advice to make the best decisions possible has always been a wise course of action.

We’ve talked before about the importance of sharing your idea early, to get valuable insights and feedback. To build a great product, you talk with your users to better understand their frustrations. You look up industry insiders and ask them for valuable insights. These kinds of conversations lead you towards validating your product. They shape your take on how to provide value. So why wouldn’t you do the same thing to validate and improve yourself as an entrepreneur? 

It starts with networking, but it shouldn’t end there

If you’ve started putting some effort in making your idea a reality, you know that networking is part of the game. It starts with a conversation with someone you find interesting or smarter than you. You probably shared a little of your idea, got some valuable insights, and then went into more details. If your conversation partner – an industry insider, or a fellow entrepreneur, or a product marketer – proves to be attentive and asks you piercing questions that lead you to better insights, you’re probably going to follow up. 

Many professional relationships start this way: the valuable conversation you’ve had continues when you follow-up, and then continues through to a third interaction. You find yourself shooting them emails and giving them the occasional call. You get together for lunch and throw ideas back and forth. Some relationships you start will diverge, pushed apart by contradicting interests and schedules. But with the people you manage to keep around, you build yourself a space where you can take your questions, and get help. And the truth of the matter is you’ll relish having someone in your corner, making sure you get the best out of yourself and your resources. 

Someone that makes you a better entrepreneur is a mentor

If you’re looking for a word to describe someone who invests time and advice in making you a better professional, that would be a mentor. Sometimes, you’re lucky and find yourself valuable mentors informally – by participating at meetups, workshops and conferences and starting conversations with the people attending. In truth, many mentorship relationships, whether they’re called so or not, start that way. 

If you’re looking for something a little more formal, mentoring programs provide the context and an added attention given to matching process and the time allocated for each participant. These can be set up as programs inside an investment firm, a coworking space, a startup hub or a professional association. We recommend trying out different settings, so you can find the best fit for your own needs. 

Whichever road you choose, remember that there are only so many relationships you can focus on at one time. So start broad, but narrow down. And never let a mentor get in the way of focusing on the work you have to do to build your startup. 

You’ll know you’ve hit jackpot with a good mentor when they check off these characteristics:

  • They keep the conversation going and stick to the set time commitments
  • They are familiar with the industry you’re entering and provide you with valuable leads and insights, including potential pitfalls
  • They are capable of identifying your and your product’s blind spots and help you cover them
  • They are honest in the advice they give you and constructive in their feedback
  • They never try to impose their own opinions as decisions
  • They are encouraging and try to get you motivated during tough times

Whatever we think makes a good mentor, remember that the final judge in this is you. If you find a person helpful and insightful in a way that makes you a better entrepreneur and your product a better version of itself, call them a mentor from the get-go. Acknowledging the help you get and recognising it at various points can be a great reward for your mentor.

Have mentors go the extra mile: ask them to invest in your idea

Some mentors you gather around you will keep a certain distance, while others may gravitate closer and closer to your business. If you find that one of your mentors in particularly interested in your product, ask them to put some skin in the game. 

Asking a committed mentor to invest in your idea gets them to back you for the long term. It also works as a reward, as you’re giving them a slice of the pie once you start reaping the benefits of your successful business. Note that the investment doesn’t have to be a large sum of money. Instead, it should be enough to kickstart your progress in building your product. 

Nevertheless, remember that giving them a slice of the pie might change the dynamics of your relationship. While becoming a sponsor will keep them invested in your work, it will also keep them focused on the details and raise their expectations of you. So expect mentors turned into investors to be:

  • Stronger advocates of the vision you’ve set for your product and more likely to hold you accountable when you stray from that path
  • The deliverers of some tough love. Appreciate it for the intent behind it – that they care about your product – and for the sincerity of the challenge
  • Willing to open doors for you. If your mentor turned investor introduces you to their contacts and resources, make sure you go the extra mile to maintain those relationships.

A mentor turned into an investor is a strong advocate to have at your back and a great member to have in your support network. And the good news is you don’t have to limit yourself to only one relationship of this type.

Build your advisory board to keep you straight

If you find yourself building relationships with several mentors at a time, consider building yourself an advisory board from the beginning.You get the benefit of having people smarter than you advising you and receiving some investment for your startup. You also get to propose the advisory board itself as an advantage for the prospective members. Who doesn’t want to become a member of an exclusive club? 

There are some logistical catches you should clear up and decide from the setup, but don’t let these get in your way. Make sure to:

  • Get some legal help in setting up the documents for the investment and the workings of the advisory board
  • Negotiate time commitments and the involvement of all members. Make sure responsibilities are clear from the beginning, as well as how they converge towards the startup’s success
  • Facilitate friendly collaboration between the advisory board and your growing team. Set clear boundaries and decision-making guidelines, to avoid potential conflicts.

Setting up and maintaining an advisory board can take up time, as most things that involve groups of busy people working together do. But if you nurture it from the foundations and create a supportive environment, you will get advice that will make you a better entrepreneur. You’ll also support the members in challenging each other and themselves towards helping you build a better product. When you create a space where everybody wins, you should feel proud of your advisory board.

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When you draw the line, how you set up your support network as an aspiring entrepreneur depends on the type of person you are and the blind spots you want covered.

Some founders flourish in keeping their support informal and regularly meeting with their professional acquaintances to ask for advice or run their ideas by them. Others prefer to formalise the support they receive in some way. They choose to call them mentors, encouraging them to sponsor their idea or aiming high and setting up an advisory board.

Whichever path you choose, make sure you build yourself a support system. There’s no better way to get the best out of you than to make sure you have people keeping you accountable for it. And there’s no better way to get out of a dump than knowing there’s someone there with you, willing to give you the insights you need. After all, being willing to listen to someone else’s expertise is what makes you a better entrepreneur. It’s also what makes your product better at providing value for your users. 

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