To Succeed at Startups and Innovation, You Need Great Mentors

West Stringfellow is the VP of Internal Innovation and Operations at Target Corporation as well as Entrepreneur in Residence. He is a mentor for Techstars Retail, in partnership with Target. This is the second post in a series on corporate innovation, originally published on LinkedIn

This past summer, Target launched its first-ever startup accelerator in partnership with Techstars. We chose to partner with Techstars because of their unbelievably high success rate in launching startups.

You can boil Techstars’ track record down to one thing: mentorship.

Techstars has mastered the art of mentoring. Without it, most startups – and many innovation efforts – fail.

Here’s what amazes me: the proven value of mentoring is right out in the open, yet the vast majority of innovation initiatives fail to leverage it. Mentoring is literally the secret sauce of every accelerator.

For example, Endeavor Insight studied thousands of startups and interviewed nearly 700 founders, and they validated the powerful role of mentoring. 33 percent of founders who were mentored by successful entrepreneurs went on to become top performers.

aaeaaqaaaaaaaagqaaaajdiwmdywogq3lta1zwmtndnlyy1iyzm4ltkwmzi1y2yzmtexza

Why Mentorship Works

Following our successful retail accelerator program this summer, I took time to assess what worked and why.

  1. Entrepreneurs and Innovators were willing to accept help: The startup teams that participated in our program were ready to absorb knowledge from anyone who walked into the accelerator space. As a result, teams didn’t waste time struggling with problems, but instead sought out experts who could help guide their decisions.
  1. Experts were willing to offer help: We were fortunate to have a large number of mentors who were willing to educate, collaborate with, and provide general help to our startup teams. Collaboration was especially important because it provided opportunities for teams to pilot projects and thus refine their capabilities.
  1. Positive ways to say “no”: No one wants a lame mentor, so we encouraged mentors to be honest about when and how they could help. One outcome we saw repeatedly was a statement to the effective of “I don’t know, but I will help you find someone who does.”

Contrast #1 with the way many innovation efforts proceed. An “innovation team” goes off in a corner and tries to come up with something new. They are cut off from the larger organization and don’t have much interaction with the outside world. Unless their team is filled with experts, you can be guaranteed they DO waste time struggling with problems and they DON’T routinely seek out experts.

I feel so strongly about this that my advice is that you are crazy to launch an internal innovation effort – or a startup – without first understanding how you will gain access to mentors. Not just one or two, but multiple mentors with expertise in the numerous specialties you will need master to succeed.

In my next post, I’m going to examine reasons to be a mentor, and I want to give you a preview by suggesting that the only way to truly be an expert is to share your expertise with others. The very definition of expert means that you are someone others turn to for knowledge, wisdom, and guidance. Without helping others, you may be knowledgeable, but you are not an expert.

Said another way: true experts function as mentors.








How to Build a Startup Accelerator at a Large Company: Lessons from Target

West Stringfellow is the VP of Internal Innovation and Operations at Target Corporation as well as Entrepreneur in Residence. He is a mentor for Techstars Retail, in partnership with Target. This is the first post in a series on corporate innovation, originally published on LinkedIn

As I described in my last post, we just wrapped up our first Target + Techstars retail accelerator. Today I want to share some lessons about building an accelerator that is attached to a company of scale such as Target.

Recruit Companies who have a Strategic Fit with Yours, but that also want to do Something Meaningful

We started with the hypothesis that we should be recruiting retail tech companies. We knew that Techstars has a spectacular ability to select the startups most likely to succeed, but we didn’t know which ones would excite Target’s team members… and thus foster the most productive collaborations.

Luckily, we selected a few companies that not only aligned strategically with our company, but that also are seeking to do the right thing for humanity.

For example, Revolar combines an app with a wearable safety device designed to help protect women from abuse and assault. Inspectorio helps to guide overseas factory inspectors throughout the supplier compliance verification process; their work focuses not only on quality but also on detecting socially damaging practices with regards to factory workers.

Our CEO, Brian Cornell, found both of these endeavors compelling and his passion helped to ignite engagement among so many of our Team Members and other mentors.

Create a Broad Mentor Pool

Top-down support from leadership is critical, yet some of the strongest mentors will be the on-the-ground specialists.

Startups are often in more need of fundamental tactics as in “here’s how you get little things done”. These are often simple business mechanisms that seem unremarkable to the people who understand them best. But when, say, an engineer is trying to figure out the best way to package a product and make it look pretty, such tips may be lifesavers.

Thus, bring in mentors with numerous perspectives and from many different levels across your company. Then maximize interactions between startups and team members. Do not try to force business partnerships; enable team members and startups to spend time together – in both informal and formal mentoring settings – and partnerships will emerge organically.

Remember this: if you build an emotional connection between the people, mentorship works much better.

Watch out for Cultural Differences

At Target, people might not get back to each other for a week after a meeting, as they explore possibilities and work out necessary details. But the startup mentality is far different, and after a day with no response, entrepreneurs start to wonder what went wrong. The better your ability to identify and understand such differences, the easier it will be to diffuse them.

Look for Winning Teams, Not just Ideas

Ideas will evolve and pivot throughout the program; teams are the reason a startup succeeds or fails. Focus on companies that are eager to learn. Startups that entered Target with the sole goal of learning – and weren’t just focused on selling – emerged with the strongest relationships and partnerships.

The Ability to Scale Matters

Let’s face it, entrepreneurs can talk big. “Sure, we can easily scale.” But it’s a sobering challenge to sell to – and serve – a large enterprise. When a founder tells a Target Team Member that they can handle scale, that Team Member is likely to respond with something like, “OK, let’s run a test today of your ability to handle 200,000 transactions per hour for two hours.”

(Gulp.)

There are good ideas, and then there are good ideas that scale. You want to find startups whose teams have the ability to scale.

***

Launching this accelerator had a huge benefit for Target: it taught us how to be better at mentoring, and we are now applying those lessons internally across our company. That alone makes this program a gigantic win.

Our next Target + Techstars accelerator will be next summer, and we’ll start taking applications in January. But, in the meantime, we built a website that allows startups to introduce themselves to Target.

P.S.: If you missed the Demo Day and are keen to catch the highlights, please do so here.