Five Things Every Techstars Mentor Should Know

Jul 12, 2023

You’ll soon be matched with a founder and their team. Your role as a Techstars mentor is one that will leave a lasting impression. There are five things you should understand once Mentor Madness is complete and the real work begins.

Remember, the three-month accelerator program will pass in a blink so prioritizing time and energy is crucial. By doing this, you can optimize your role as a mentor.

1. Understand why the founder wants you as a mentor.

Techstars mentors have many talents. All are experts in one area, but most mentors bring a broad skillset to the table.

Because of this, mentors might assume that the founders need access to every single item in a mentor's toolbox.

Don't assume.

Instead, ask specifically why the founder requested you as a mentor. What did they see in your background that could benefit their startup? 

Cameron Hardesty (Poppy) executed this perfectly in an all-mentor meeting. With seven mentors in attendance, Cameron told each mentor what she appreciated about their background and how each could best support her team. There were multiple mentors whose skill sets overlapped which meant Cameron selected one as the marketing expert, one as a fundraising expert, and so on.

The honest, direct approach prevented any potential misunderstanding, left no hurt feelings, and gave every mentor their marching orders.

2. Understand the founder's goals for the accelerator program.

Each Techstars program runs for three months, and those 90 days will pass incredibly fast.

Ensure you understand the founder's goals and how their team measures any goals. Then tie those goals back to what the founder needs from you.

  • Some founders want a single accomplishment, like securing their first partnership.

  • Other founders are interested in meeting key metrics over a set period. Erica Tuggle's (Cookonnect) goal was a month-over-month percentage increase in meals served.

  • Many founders are still determining their goals. This is more normal than not. This is also exciting because mentors bring deep experience in goal setting, goal tracking, and assigning KPIs.

If the founder is struggling with goal setting, I've found this question to help obtain insight: "At the end of this program, what does success look like for your company?"

Even if the answer is directional, it provides valuable insight into what the founder needs to accomplish in 90 days.

3. Understand how to best communicate with the founder.

As mentors, we commit to being responsive. When founders need something, time is of the essence. In a world of emails, texts, DMs, and Slack channels, the days are filled with everything except a carrier pigeon landing on one's desk.

Every team is different, so ask the founder what works best for them. What is the most natural way for the founder to communicate when they need you?

Anik Khan (MaxRewards) preferred texting during the 2019 Techstars Atlanta program—quick questions with real-time responses. When there was a need to deep-dive into a topic, Khan would schedule a weekly sync, but otherwise, SMS bursts are ok. Four years later, text chains from that program continue even today.

4. Understand the founder's schedule, then book a weekly one-on-one.

Create a cadence of weekly meetings. Ad hoc meetings with a busy founder are insufficient. 

Again: 90 days will pass fast.

Understand how the founder structures their week, then define your weekly one-on-one. Today's technology enables us to meet in a way that works best for founders. Consistency is the key, so barring an emergency, be there weekly, energized, and on time.

Derrick Barker and Brittany Mosely (Nectar) are the king and queen of Zoom meetings in a parking lot, thanks to their business which required them to be in the car, navigating Atlanta.

That meant weekly syncs were bookended by their discussions with customers, investors, and partners. While few things are as impactful as an in-person face-to-face meeting, mentors are meant to support and enable founders' work. Every 'parking lot Zoom' with Derrick and Brittany was exciting because the literal momentum of their efforts was palpable.

5. Understand how you can be helpful to other founders.

Adopting one company every class is great, but there are three additional ways we can be incredibly helpful.

Volunteer to lead a session. Ask the Managing Director if you can lead a session or presentation in an area of your expertise. Maybe it's a process overview, like customer discovery. It could be a timely topic like new laws or regulations founders should be mindful of. For Techstars Boston and Atlanta, I lead a Growth Marketing 101 session, a foundational focus to enable agency and a bias for action.

Keep in contact with founders you were not matched with. Techstars is the world's premier accelerator, so it's no surprise that it attracts premier people, many of whom you will not be matched with. It's hard not to fall in love with the vision and conviction of more than one startup. When you find these great founders, help however you can, no matter how small the help may be. "Though I didn't match with Marco and Lydia (RentCheck), I've helped with the interview process for new team members, and we grab coffee whenever they're in town from New Orleans. Due to the pandemic, I've never met Seattle-based Melinda and Chelsey (Proxi), but their passion during Mentor Madness was palpable. Two years later, we still swap emails about everything from pitch decks to product experience."

Provide feedback to the program's Managing Director. There are dozens of mentors but only one Managing Director. I have never met a Managing Director who didn't welcome any feedback with open arms. By providing feedback on the program, its class members, and your experience, you help current and future founders. Accelerators, like startups, are hard, so have empathy in your approach.

This thought piece was written by Landon Howell, a startup advisor in Atlanta. A graduate of one of the earliest Techstars classes, Landon is an All-Star Mentor, working with six current Techstars programs.