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“In God we trust, others must provide data.”

—Edwin R. Fisher

Mentorship is one of the key factors that sets apart Techstars accelerators (or as we like to call them “mentorship-driven accelerators”). One of the big responsibilities of each managing director is to find amazing mentors who will be a good match for the 10 companies in the program. This means digging deep into industries and areas of expertise so that these specific companies get to meet people who will be hugely helpful to them.

Mentorship is so essential to the Techstars experience that we even have a Mentor Manifesto, which describes what great mentorship looks like.

But for founders, the experience of being mentored by all of these brilliant, experienced, driven people can be wildly disorienting. When mentors give you contradictory advice, who do you listen to?

How To Be Mentored

Danish Dhamani, cofounder of Orai and graduate of the 2018 Comcast NBCUniversal LIFT Labs Accelerator, Powered by Techstars, had exactly this experience. “I was confused,” Danish said. “We’d talk to one mentor, and they would tell us to go the B2C route. Then the next day, another mentor would say go B2B. And we even got contradictory advice for which industry segment to go after. We were stuck!”

Finally, one mentor gave him some advice about how to take advice. She told him he was clearly a smart person, to have come this far, and he should trust that. Her advice was to trust his gut—and then validate everything using hard data.

Basically, every mentor’s experience is a data point. No more, no less. And once Danish realized this, he figured out how to ask the right kind of questions, which would give him the kind of data he needed.

There Is Such A Thing As A Bad Question

Danish came up with a framework of good and bad questions. For example, he was having a lot of trouble figuring out how to set the pricing for Orai. He used to ask mentors questions like, “How should I price my product?”

That’s a bad question. It assumes that the mentor knows the answer to Orai’s problem. She doesn’t. While the mentor may have set pricing at her own startup, she’s never been in exactly the same situation at Orai—no one has. That’s the fun and the terror of being an entrepreneur.

Asking this kind of question, Danish got all kinds of answers: free, freemium, $10K, $50K. He had no way of knowing which one was right.

Instead, Danish started asking: “How did you decide how to price your product? How did you validate your pricing?”

Mentors told him their pricing stories, describing the process they used to make decisions. Now Danish had data points instead of answers—and he could use those data points to find his own answers.

Danish now felt more confident trusting his own ideas about how to run his company—as long as he backed up his instincts with data.

He adapted the processes he learned from his mentors, and figured out how to use them in his unique situation. Research led to more data to support—or contradict—what his instinct was telling him about how to run Orai. And when he set prices, he did so knowing that he hadn’t forgotten or missed anything—the dread “you don’t know what you don’t know” situation.

A Grain of Salt

Want to know quickly whether someone is a good mentor? Danish found that the best mentors always recommend that you take their advice with a grain of salt. In other words, they know that they are fallible and that their comments may or may not end up being helpful to you.

This is particularly telling in the world of startups, where big egos abound. The best mentors stay humble and know that however much success they may have had, they don’t actually know everything. They don’t expect you to view everything they say as gospel truth and slavishly follow their instructions. They understand that they’re just another data point for you—and they welcome that role.

Of course: take this advice with a grain of salt.

Want to learn more about Techstars mentorship-driven accelerator programs? Read about the benefits of the programs; come to a Meet & Greet event; fill out our general interest form; attend an AMA (ask me anything); or apply to a program. Applications for programs in several industries and locations are open now!


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