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.