There’s endless writing about how lonely it is to be an entrepreneur. How hard it is to be at the top. And how stressful it can be to become a founder, leader, entrepreneur.
Like anything in life, choosing to do something without a community of people to support you is a lonely path. And you can probably make the argument that you don’t learn the basics in life without teachers, peers, mentors, and cheerleaders. No Olympic athlete ever won a gold medal without both falling on their ass repeatedly and without good coaching.
So, why would an entrepreneur set out on their journey all alone?
There are a few books I’ve read that exemplify why other people are important in achieving your life goals – and why it’s important to take time to stop-look-listen as well as to share your experiences, hopes, and dreams. (More on those books later…)
In the throes of creating the most incredible, must-have solution to a big problem, sometimes we forget to ask others to join in the journey….we sometimes forget to surround ourselves with people smarter than us, and we forget that it is necessary to both give and take.
Personal Growth as a Bank Account
I like to look at the give and take component of personal growth as a bank account. Sometimes there’s debt and sometimes there’s a surplus. Being mindful of this concept is valuable. I like to keep my debt relatively low and I do this by making sure that I build a strong savings account so that when I really need help, that I don’t go into massive debt getting there.
How does this work? How do you build a big savings account?
Become a Mentor
Becoming a mentor builds equity versus cash in your savings account because every time you Give First as a mentor, there is a return to the person you mentor — as well as to yourself. You can be a mentor to a someone like you but less experienced (an entrepreneur who is more wet behind the ears), or to a person more senior than you (if you have a skill set that they do not have); to someone who is like you (a math major helping another math major); an alumna of a college helping a student in that college, etc. You can help a sibling, a neighbor, a classmate, a coworker. You get the idea. It’s never too early to mentor and to be mentored.
Find a Mentor for Yourself
Finding your own mentor is the corollary to becoming a mentor. There’s no order that these two need to come in – it’s a virtuous cycle. But the more that you allow yourself to openly share, the more that you receive. A mentor is someone whom you trust and respect. They can be explicit in the relationship – scheduled time, specifics asks and answers — or it can be less defined, a relationship that is based on simply wanting to grow by learning from another’s experiences.
Participate in Networking Events
Peers and people who have aligned interests are great ways to grow your network and yourself. I’m a big fan of openly sharing and engaging, of honesty and transparency, and of helping someone over rough patches that I’ve already learned how to navigate.
Networking events are also awesome ways to add another person to your personal network, find that new investor that you’ve been seeking, do some A/B testing on your messaging and, most basically, a change of scenery. It’s too easy to be too busy to make the time to change the scenery and engage with other people – making the effort and following through on the intent is important.
Join an Organization to Get Connected
If you are a part of a network like Techstars, really use the Techstars family. Take advantage of Connect (our private network for Techstars founders), meet with other founders, engage with your MD and others that are interesting to you, find new mentors and reach out to investors. What you reap will be at least proportional to what you sow.
I remember the point in my journey as an entrepreneur when I wanted to become a better CEO – and my intentional journey to do this. I joined Entrepreneur’s Organization (better known as EO) and benefited hugely from my forum. It was there that I expanded my network for life, I joined both my local board and the International Board, learned about a different type of governance, explored the world, and was exposed to cultural differences, went through the Birthing of Giants program, and further blew my mind up. I credit EO with a rapid growth of my understanding of the journey that I was on and my ability to be much more intentional about my path.
Just remember: you are not alone. Dive into the network around you and learn from your it. Get connected. Be a mentor and find a good one. Take control of your learning. Everything is a teachable moment if you let it become one.
Oh, and back to those few books that inspired me …
- Into Thin Air – such a lesson on the dangers of being singularly focused and not always allowing others to lead.
- The Boys in the Boat – an accidental book about team work; as a former rower, it was a huge validation for me but the overall principles and underpinnings are amazing.
- Lean In – I wasn’t a huge fan, at first. And then I decided it was a must read simply because it’s so available for anyone.
- When Genius Failed – failure is something that we all need to do.
- The Cult of Done – so many worthy principles in this basic manifesto.
At Techstars, you are not alone. Once you are part of the network, it’s Techstars for Life. Join us!
Alberto Escarlate is a Techstars mentor as well as an investor, designer, professor, entrepreneur and advisor. He’s the founder of Playful Data as well as a Venture Partner at Collaborative Fund. Before becoming a VC, he co-founded Sojo Studios and TigerTag; the first free lost & found service for consumer electronics – an early precursor of the Internet of Things. He also served as CTO for startups such as Entertainment Media Works and YellowPin.
What do you love most about mentoring startups? Why do you do it?
The startup thrill is about the fast pace and growth. It’s also about the many obstacles that will make you stop for a moment and take a deep breath before sprinting to climb them.
When mentoring a startup, you’re not super close to that crazy ride, but it’s the closest you can be without being a founder or investor. At every check point there’s something unexpected: a new possible deal, a new finding about the business model or a product. These are reasons to love mentoring. And, frankly, I do it because I love to help people.
As entrepreneurs, we make a lot of mistakes. To have someone who will open your eyes and help overcome them is extremely valuable to founders and rewarding to mentors.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received? What’s the worst?
I was fortunate to have received great advice during my career. The best advice is the one that comes at the right time. Just when you need it. It doesn’t matter if it’s about fundraising or solving a co-founder’s conflict.
I’ve also received a lot of bad advice that usually comes from people with no, “skin in the game.” Founders should always consider the context that the advice is given in. Who’s giving it and what is their agenda?
How do you prefer that founders follow up with you?
I have no preference. Email is pretty common, but I’ve had conversations with founders over messaging apps, text, etc.
What is the most common mistake you see startup founders make?
It’s like cooking…a common mistake is adding too much or too little of an ingredient. Early stage startups need a lot of experimentation and I see founders too shy of trying something different. It’s also very common to scatter the focus on things that won’t bring much in return. There’s a fine line on prioritizing where to focus.
What is your favorite quality in a founder?
Being a founder is already a pretty awesome quality. The fact that you made a decision to create something that could impact the world is notable. I think curiosity, willingness to learn and to admit that you don’t have the solution for everything is a great quality.
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.
Why Mentorship Works
Following our successful retail accelerator program this summer, I took time to assess what worked and why.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Babak Kia is a Techstars mentor as well as a Senior Lecturer at the Boston University College of Engineering, where for more than a decade he has taught courses across the super stack of Transistor-to-Cloud to more than a thousand engineering students. Babak has extensive industry experience and is currently on the Board or an advisor to some of the nation’s most innovative technology ventures, where he advises on the strategy and design of Hardware, Embedded, Connected and IoT products.
What do you love most about mentoring startups? Why do you do it?
What I love most is helping founders build or achieve something that has never existed before, and seeing how that leads to an incredibly positive impact to the world!
This could be an AI company poised to redefine healthcare through a predictive prognosis that literally saves countless of lives, or it could be an IoT company building a digital piggy-bank to teach the ever more important financial literacy skills to children.
The common denominator is the measurable impact that each has to bettering people’s lives.
I mentor startups because first of all it is a privilege to take part in amazing journeys led by amazing entrepreneurs, but also because at times I can have a concrete impact to making startups successful and I feel it my responsibility and obligation to help out when I can.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received? What’s the worst?
I used to think that “follow your passion” was the best advice anyone could ever give, but I think that it may actually be the worst advice. The best advice I have ever received is to “follow your opportunity, apply your passion” — an advice that I believe is particularly apt for entrepreneurs looking to launch and grow their businesses.
How do you prefer that founders follow up with you?
Every founder has her own workflow. Some founders are methodical and send out weekly updates, while others are less frequent or only send out “asks”. While there is no right answer on how or when to follow up, I think that there are a couple of guidelines that make for better communiques.
The first and foremost is to reach out before making major decisions, otherwise the power of mentorship and advice may simply reduce to the mechanics of networking and connections.
The second is to realize that the more data points someone has about your business, the better they can map your trajectory in their head and the better positioned they will be to either predict challenges, or to promote and otherwise help propel you forward.
What is the most common mistake you see startup founders make?
Trying to fit a square peg through a round hole. This most commonly manifests itself as trying to force a product-market fit.
What is your favorite quality in a founder?
The unyielding and unbreakable confidence that you will reach your goals. Not because of hubris, not because you are special in some way, but because you are willing to put in the hard work, willing to listen and be introspective, and willing to fail and go beyond your comfort zone in order to achieve what is important to you.
This year and moving forward, UP is dedicated to finding and sharing more stories of talented female founders, entrepreneurs, and leaders as part of our Startup Women initiative. If you know an inspiring female entrepreneur, please email firstname.lastname@example.org so that we can tell her story.
Melantha Hodge is the recent founder of 1OFAKIND Entertainment, a marketing and entertainment consulting business. She has years of experience within the music and entertainment industry as a marketing professional, having worked with ASCAP, Chris Brown Entertainment, The Tina Davis Company, Universal Motown Records and Title 9 Productions. Learn more below about her experiences, her inspirations and mentors, and find out what she believes are the biggest challenges facing female entrepreneurs.
I was born in Los Angeles, CA, but grew up in Pittsburgh, PA. My parents played a huge role in my development, and helped me evolve into the strong, ambitious, passionate woman that I am today. Growing up, I always had a love for music, but when I went to Syracuse University, I was exposed to opportunities that opened my eyes to pursuing a career in the music and entertainment business. I entered college as a Business major, and I ended up graduating with a double major in Marketing and Finance and a minor in the Music Industry.
Upon graduation, I moved to New York City where I soon immersed myself into the networking scene in order to get a foot in the door. I had a short stint working at the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), and soon thereafter, I was offered the opportunity to work alongside Chris Brown and his management team, which served as my first big break into the music business. I served as Executive Assistant for Chris Brown Entertainment and The Tina Davis Company from 2005-2006, where I learned a tremendous amount about talent management, met amazing people, and walked away with immeasurable memories and experience.
In 2007, I joined the Marketing team at Universal Motown Records, a record label I had dreamed of working at especially since the President was music industry renowned Sylvia Rhone. Over the course of four years, I contributed to numerous artist marketing projects including Akon, Erykah Badu, Stevie Wonder, Ashanti, Busta Rhymes, Melanie Fiona, Kid Cudi, Shontelle, Kat DeLuna, and many more. I currently reside in Los Angeles, where I serve as a Marketing Manager with Title 9 Productions, home to Grammy Award winners Melanie Fiona and LeToya Luckett. I am involved with a wide array of projects with the management and production company, and currently serve as LeToya Luckett’s Day-to-Day Manager and Road Manager.
Two months ago, I decided to put my entrepreneurial prowess into action and launch my own marketing and entertainment consulting business, 1OFAKIND Entertainment. I’m excited to see what new experiences my business brings my way, but more importantly, I want to help make a positive impact in the careers of my clients.
When did you first self-identify as an entrepreneur?
In answering this question, I would like to share a recent remark my mother sent to me upon the launch of my business.
“Melantha, I am proud of you. As a youth you aspired to have your own business and as a young adult you were drawn to and immersed yourself in the music and entertainment industry. You pursued your passions, gained invaluable knowledge along the way and now have your own company – what a wonderful accomplishment.”
This pretty much sums up that I have always had the entrepreneurial passion within me.
Share a bit about your company and some of the highs/lows associated with your entrepreneurial journey — biggest learning curve? Most exciting moment?
After 8 years of working with artists such as LeToya Luckett, Melanie Fiona, and Chris Brown, I decided to package the range of skills I had acquired through my vast experiences and form my own marketing and entertainment consulting business. In February 2014, I founded 1OFAKIND Entertainment, and over the past two months I have been busy at work conducting market research, designing my logo, solidifying my brand messaging, creating a website, and exploring opportunities with prospective clients.
One of the most challenging parts about getting my business off the ground has been learning to juggle multiple roles and using time management effectively, since I am operating as a sole proprietor. The way in which I’ve learned to manage my time is by allocating certain parts of my day or week to specific projects. I create an ongoing to-do list where I prioritize my tasks and update it on a frequent basis as items are completed. One of the most important traits of being a successful entrepreneur is being able to manage yourself. You are now your own boss, and with that role comes a lot of responsibility to keep yourself accountable to your goals.
The most exciting moment thus far has been launching the 1OFAKIND website and receiving an incredible response. Another highlight is receiving the amazing testimonials from the esteemed artists and professionals that I’ve worked with over the years. It’s nice to know that I am making a positive impact on others’ careers, and it’s great to see that they are so eager to publicly share the role I’ve played in helping them achieve their goals. It’s an awesome feeling to receive recognition and support from both those individuals who have been in my life and the new people I continue to meet.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing women in entrepreneurship?
I believe one of the biggest challenges is the lack of female empowerment within the workforce. I feel that often times women are not encouraged to take charge of their lives and start their own business as much as their male counterparts. We, as accomplished businesswomen, need to unite and provide more platforms for girls and young women to learn from examples that they too can go after their dreams of successfully creating their own business. Also, having a great support system plays a vital role in how women pursue their goals and aspirations. If you don’t have people around you that are encouraging you, then you should re-evaluate your inner circle and find like-minded individuals who will be there to cheer you on as you pursue your dreams.
Growing up, or now, did you have one particular mentor that inspired you or helped you get to where you are today?
I have been fortunate to have several people in my life to help guide and inspire me over the years, including my family, friends, and colleagues. There is one person, in particular, who provided me with the opportunity to work alongside her at Universal Motown Records, and who still plays an impactful role in my life as my mentor. Music industry veteran, Shanti Das, has been paving the way for women in the entertainment business for years, and I’ve had the privilege to learn from her on a daily basis. In addition to being the owner of Press Reset Entertainment, Shanti is also an acclaimed author and philanthropist. We’ve known each other for over six years, and Shanti continues to serve as a source of inspiration for not only myself, but for countless others.
What are you reading now – or what have you read previously – that inspired you, that you’d like to tell others about?
I would highly recommend Shanti Das’ new book The Hip-Hop Professional 2.0. This book gives invaluable insight into the music and entertainment industry while providing encouragement and advice to aspiring young adults. The entertainment business is male-dominated, and it’s rare that you come across a book written by a well-respected female executive that is honest, relatable, and very inspiring. For more information, please visit Shanti’s website.
If you could offer one piece of advice to your younger self, or to other emerging female entrepreneurs, what would it be?
Believe in yourself and follow your passion no matter what obstacles come your way. You can do it!
READ more from Melantha – 5 Pieces Of Marketing Advice For Emerging Musicians.
This article was written by Wade Foster, CEO of Zapier, a Mountain View, Calif. based startup that got its start in 2011 at the inaugural Startup Weekend Columbia. Zapier went on to participate in Y Combinator and raise $1.3 million from Bessemer Venture Partners, Draper Fisher Jurvetson and others.
Startup Weekend has now hosted over 1,000 events around the globe (almost 500 cities at the point of publishing). With a fast growing alumni network—currently more than 45,000 entrepreneurs—there’s a pretty good chance that if you’re in the startup ecosystem, the opportunity to participate in a Startup Weekend will come your way. At some point, it may be by invitation to be a mentor.
Through my experience in six Startup Weekends as a participant, speaker, judge and mentor, I’ve seen a lot of good mentoring and witnessed plenty of not so good mentoring, too.
Most people don’t intentionally do a bad job, but unfortunately their mentoring is still pretty bad.
Hiten Shah addressed this occurrence well:
I see it happening all of the time: Entrepreneurs get to a certain point in their lives, and they think it’s suddenly time to “give back,” and instead of listening to and observing their mentees, they spend a lot of time telling them the “right way” to be an entrepreneur/run a business/use their strengths based solely on their own experiences.
Though I’m certainly not a mentoring expert, my experience on both sides of the table has given me a unique vantage point to record what I like and dislike from Startup Weekend mentors. I’ve distilled those characteristics into the following eight Startup Weekend Mentor Tips.
1. Show Up
Most Startup Weekend mentors use just a few hours of the 54 hours available to actually help. Even worse, mentors try to do it on their own schedule. They’ll stroll in on Saturday afternoon and try to help teams that are already in execute mode and don’t have many questions. But late Friday night and early Saturday morning when teams are still figuring things out, many of the mentors are nowhere to be seen.
Instead, as a mentor, make it your goal to be around for as much of the weekend as possible. Don’t mentor on your own schedule. Mentor on the teams’ schedule. If you’re around, as soon as a team has a problem, they’ll be able to ask a question and get immediate help. I know this is unrealistic for some people’s schedule. If that’s the case, then don’t be a mentor. Startup Weekend isn’t every weekend of the year. It’s not too much to ask that once or maybe twice a year you clear your weekend schedule to dedicate your time to budding entrepreneurs.
2. Check in Every 8 Hours
It’s tempting as a mentor to “solve all the problems.” But it’s fine to just hang out. Don’t hound the teams. Instead, check in every 8 hours or so. Ask a few questions about their progress. If they’ve had any problems come up, give them a framework for solving the problem and moving on. If things are going well, then leave. Don’t bother a team if they don’t need advice.
3. Set up Shop in a Visible Area
Teams will need help and that won’t necessarily be on your timeline. And since you aren’t hounding the teams, they may not know where you are when they need help. So set up shop in an area that is highly visible. When the team needs help, they’ll know where to find you.
4. Don’t Encourage Direction Changes after Saturday Afternoon
If a team hasn’t found it’s grove by Saturday afternoon then it likely won’t find it’s grove by Sunday. Instead, encourage them to make progress on what they have already. And definitely don’t point them to a newer and shinier object in the room. That’ll just spur hours of more discussion. And for an event that’s motto is “No talk. All action.” that’s the last thing you want to do.
5. Mentor Whiplash is a Real Thing
These teams will have several mentors come by throughout the weekend. They’ll all have advice and often it’s conflicting. Let the teams know in advance that they will have mentor whiplash. The best thing they can do is to have a framework for thinking and proving out their own business model. Let them know that at the end of the day they have to make their own decisions about their team, their product and their company. So don’t do anything because a mentor said to do it; do it because that’s what is best for them and their business.
6. Don’t Pile on Your Own Opinions
Often times a Startup Weekend team is feeling out many variations of the same idea. This leads many mentors to encourage teams to build the thing that would be most useful to them, the mentor. While valid feedback for teams looking for a single customer, it’s not necessarily helpful for the business. It’s much better to listen to what the team is trying to do, and then give them a framework for thinking about their product and their business. Let them determine the final direction they want to go.
7. Your Mentorship won’t Change the Outcome
At lot of mentors hope that they can say some magic words or provide the spark for some special moment that will point a team to victory on Sunday night and continued business success past the weekend. That’s not the case.
The most a mentor can do is help a team save a bit of time by getting them to answers quicker. At most, it’s a few ticks better in one direction or a few ticks worse in the other direction. Teams will succeed or not on the merits of their own abilities.
8. Encourage and Celebrate with the Teams
For most Startup Weekend teams, the event is more about learning something new than it is about going all in on a business. The most important thing you can do is encourage the teams and individuals. Let them know that entrepreneurship is a real option and not something that only the Steve Jobs’ of the world can do.
And at the end of the weekend, celebrate with them. Congratulate them on a job well done. Make sure that even if their team or project falls apart after the weekend, they can still look back and know that they had a good time. And if a team or two seems like they have promise, point them to the resources they’ll need to really make a go of it.