Mentoring Entrepreneurs for Maximum Impact

Jul 09, 2024

By Patrick J. Murphy, Goodrich Chair of the Barefield Entrepreneurship Program at UAB and Techstars All-Star Mentor

Why do entrepreneurs need mentors? Here are the three most common answers:

Experience. Entrepreneurs respect those who have been there and done that. The lessons of experience help entrepreneurs avoid costly mistakes, work faster, and perform better. 

Expertise. Entrepreneurs engage hard problems that require specialized skills. Advanced expertise acquired via experiences or education makes it possible to resolve those problems. 

Networking. Entrepreneurs benefit from introductions to potential customers, partners, and investors. Seasoned operators with experience and expertise have those connections. 

Mentors provide entrepreneurs with human capital (experience, expertise) and social capital (networking). Entrepreneurs use it to design, build, scale, hire, acquire customers, establish legitimacy, raise money, and more. All valuable, to be sure. But is it enough?   

Most would say no. Many entrepreneurs need more. Great mentors can, and do, give more

The uncertainties and trials of entrepreneurship can produce fear, anxiety, and stress. These outcomes destroy confidence and can cripple entrepreneurial performance. For a mentor to help an entrepreneur navigate such issues requires more than experience, expertise, and networking. Moreover, entrepreneurs who are not dealing with such issues can still benefit from being inspired in new ways. Like great coaches, great mentors can, and should, inspire entrepreneurs. 

Most entrepreneurs agree that this kind of support can be transformational. It can even enhance the practical impact of the experience, expertise, and networking provided by a mentor. 

Throughout history, mentoring has always been part of entrepreneurship in families, guilds, societies, and communities. Then and now, across myriad different forms and arrangements, mentoring has always essentially provided two kinds of support to entrepreneurs: One to help them work, and one to help them live

Entrepreneurial Work and Life

For mentors and entrepreneurs, appreciating the differences between the two kinds of support is instrumental to fully exercising both of them. Ignoring the differences is an error, and is liable to damage mentoring quality in ad hoc arrangements and in mentoring programs. It happens a lot. We can clarify this distinction by referring to the two kinds of mentoring as Type I and Type II. 

Type I mentoring. When mentors provide knowledge and wisdom from experience, expertise, or share networking connections with entrepreneurs, the conversations are lateral. They entail external references, examples, and introductions that help the entrepreneur execute particular tasks. Mentors give feedback regarding decisions, actions, or plans and points of view. The mentor talks more. The interactions tend to be shorter and shallower. Sometimes they occur in “mentor speed dating” events. Type I mentoring puts entrepreneurs to work. It directly supports entrepreneurs to do their work in more effective ways. 

Type II mentoring. When entrepreneurs need the other kind of support, the conversations with mentors are medial. The interactions with mentors are longer and deeper because fear, anxiety, and stress are internal experiences. The mentor listens more. This kind of mentoring puts a mentor to work, so to speak, and it is intended to help an entrepreneur find better harmony between work and life. Role modeling, culture, representation, building a relationship, and the personal aspects of identity become instrumental for both parties. Such mentoring indirectly supports entrepreneurs in developing confidence and self-efficacy. It can occur in group or individual settings. Type II mentoring enables entrepreneurs to put valuable human and social capital (from Type I) to work more effectively. It can also be rewarding for mentors. 

In all fields of human endeavor, one’s work must be personal in order to be excellent. This principle applies especially to entrepreneurship, where unique differentiation is instrumental to success and entrepreneurs engage problems that are personally meaningful to them. However, this kind of work increases one’s vulnerabilities. The best mentoring practices and programs take full stock of this principle. Type II mentoring is helpful in this regard. It can enable entrepreneurs to utilize support from Type I mentoring in better and bolder ways. 

As I have written elsewhere, the uncertainties and trials of entrepreneurship tend to defy the notion of work-life balance. Work and personal life activities are convoluted for many entrepreneurs. Seeking to balance them does not usually make sense. On the other hand, seeking to harmonize them can create synergies. Work and life can seem identical for extremely busy entrepreneurs. However, mentoring for work and mentoring for life are radically different activities for mentors. It is easy to ignore that difference, and the consequences of that error can be significant. Designing mentoring practices and programs intentionally with respect to this distinction yields better mentoring outcomes. 

Meaningful relationships are based on respect and trust. These two aspects of human interaction affect the relationships between mentors and entrepreneurs in different ways. Here are two principles to keep in mind when building and managing an entrepreneur mentoring program for maximum impact.

Type I mentoring requires respect. Entrepreneurs respect experience and expertise. They value networking connections and show respect when engaging those connections. This kind of respect is pre-established in a mentoring relationship. It does not require time to earn it. Instead, it can be lost. Mentors earn the right to keep it. Weak guidance from limited experience, bad advice from low expertise, or poor-quality networking connections can lower the respect between an entrepreneur and a mentor.

Type II mentoring requires trust. Entrepreneurs tend to share their personal fears, anxieties, and stresses only with people whom they trust. It takes time to earn trust. It is not pre-established in a mentoring relationship. Shared values, similar backgrounds and identities, empathy, and demonstrating an authentic interest in the entrepreneur’s well-being are instrumental to earning and building trust on a personal level between an entrepreneur and a mentor.  

These two principles are instrumental to mentoring program design. They can also help with appropriate midterm or ex post evaluations of mentoring program effectiveness. Such evaluations should measure mentor performance based on whether the mentoring is Type I or Type II.  It is also important to observe the correct scheduling for such evaluations based on the different temporal cycles of respect and trust. 

It Takes an Ecosystem

World-class mentoring outcomes derive from the strengths of the local communities in which the mentoring occurs. The best mentoring programs are created by culture, which means they are rooted in communities with clear values that diverse members can share and embrace. This allows the power of community to instill confidence and self-efficacy among the entrepreneurs. Such communities can be demographic or geographic. They can include accelerators, incubators, regional ecosystems, or whole sectors. When such a community is strong, entrepreneurs believe that their ventures may fail but that the community will not, which helps inspire bold entrepreneurial moves. 

The best mentors are self-actualized, which means they are intrinsically motivated to serve others. They know they can learn a lot just by teaching and guiding others. It is meaningful and enjoyable for them. Culture tends to outrun strategy in organizations and communities. In a strong ecosystem, mentors will show up voluntarily with no expectation of remuneration, and they are welcomed when they do so. An entrepreneurial ecosystem reinforces itself naturally over time by mentoring its early-stage entrepreneurs. 


Here are five takeaways for ecosystem builders, program directors, mentors, and entrepreneurs to use when striving for maximum impact in their mentoring activities and programs. 

1. Appreciate the importance of Type II mentoring.

Type II mentoring is powerful but underutilized. Recent research based on 779 graduates of entrepreneurship accelerators showed that entrepreneurs who received more “personal mentoring” in addition to guidance from experts made significantly greater progress on six key entrepreneurial performance dimensions while in the accelerator program.

2. Design mentor programs based on Type I and Type II mentoring.

Not every entrepreneur wants both types of mentoring. Not every mentor wishes to provide both. Ask entrepreneurs what kind of mentoring they are seeking. Ask mentors what kind of mentoring they wish to provide. It may be appropriate to keep these program data confidential. Whereas many mentors are qualified to provide both types, providing both types to the same entrepreneur can be problematic.

3. Informal mentoring programs work better.

For decades, research on mentoring has shown that informal mentoring is more effective than formal mentoring. What this means is that a mentoring program should not be highly prescriptive or overly structured. Higher-quality relationships form when entrepreneurs and mentors have reasonable freedom to select or discontinue engagements without penalties. Set clear expectations at the outset, along with dates and deadlines. Use online platforms or social events to allow mentors and mentees to discover and learn about each other. Make targeted introductions when there are obvious synergies, instead of making systematic pairings for everybody.

4. Mentoring is culturally laden.

Ecosystems, accelerators, incubators, industries, sectors, demographics, and geographies are downstream from culture. The barriers to entrepreneurship can vary across such different settings. Moreover, the same barrier (e.g., access to capital) can call for radically different approaches in such different settings. Culture is powerful. Best practices are important, but high-impact mentoring tailors them into highly practical solutions that work for entrepreneurs in context. Type II mentoring can enhance Type I mentoring for this reason.

5. Select mentors intentionally.

Great mentors give very generously with no expectation of reward, recognition, or extrinsic returns. They have “soul in the game” rather than “skin in the game.” Their interest in mentee success derives from a genuine sense of something larger than themselves, such as a community or the future. Experience, expertise, and valuable network connections (and the willingness to share them) are vital. Listening ability is important, and it indicates open-mindedness and the ability to be patient. Listening, open-mindedness, and patience are helpful when guiding entrepreneurs who may not understand right away or may resist a mentor’s guidance. All of these competencies should be considered when selecting mentors, forming a team of mentors, evaluating mentor engagements, or designing a mentoring program.

About the Author
Patrick J. Murphy

Patrick J. Murphy is Goodrich Chair of the Barefield Entrepreneurship Program at UAB. He is a horse racing industry entrepreneur and active in retired racehorse rehabilitation.  He has authored over 50 articles or books about entrepreneurship and mentored entrepreneurs worldwide for almost 25 years. He serves as Scholar in Residence at Innovation Depot in Birmingham, Alabama, and is a Techstars 2023 All-Star Mentor.