If you spot a blur speeding through the bright, airy space occupied by Comcast NBCUniversal LIFT Labs Accelerator, powered by Techstars, it’s probably Danielle Cohn.
She’s the Executive Director of Entrepreneurial Engagement and the Head of LIFT Labs for Comcast NBCUniversal, and she moves fast. Officially, she’s the corporate liaison, but her true role is so much more. As she explained, “Really, our team was side by side with the startups the whole time they were in the program.” She and her team met with the 10 startups in the program every week, helping them refine what they were looking for from their other mentors. “We helped them hone in on the outcomes they were interested in. We’re about getting results.” She also helped them connect with business units within Comcast NBCUniversal that might be interested in giving them feedback.
Danielle is an entrepreneur, as well. “I’ve had a couple of startups myself,” she said. “I’ve always had a side passion project because I’ve found it keeps me fresh.” She’s the first to say how much she learns from other startups. “I work with startups every day, and it gives me a reality check when I have my own. You have to be extremely nimble; you’re doing it all for yourself!”
Her experience on both sides of the startup-corporate divide makes her the perfect bridge between these two such very different entities. She is determined that both the startups and her corporation get the most out of the accelerator—and during the 13 weeks of the program, eight startups got a pilot off the ground, an exceptional success rate. By the end of the calendar year, three companies had additional contracts with Comcast Cable, NBCUniversal, or DreamWorks, and all the rest were still working with some part of the corporation. Three of the companies now have a presence in Philadelphia.
How does she do it? She has four rules for herself—and other mentors. Here’s how to mentor—and Give First—like Danielle does:
1) Have fun doing this.
“Mentoring shouldn’t feel like a burden. It should feel like something you want to do,” Danielle says. If you don’t have the time, be honest—with yourself and with the founder—and bow out. Otherwise, let yourself enjoy the craziness of watching—and helping—a startup grow, change, and find itself over the course of 13 weeks. Or even beyond… Some mentors stay involved with the companies well after the accelerator program ends.
2) Be responsive.
“They only have 13 weeks. You’ve got to be responsive,” Danielle says, and you know she means it. Fortunately, she has some additional advice on how to do this well. “If you need to, bring someone to do your follow up. You’re going to walk out of the meeting with a to-do list of asks.” Someone has to do them—if not you, then your designated representative can look up names, make introductions, find that elusive bit of data that wasn’t at your fingertips when you wanted it. The important thing is that if you say you’ll do something, it gets done—fast.
3) Set expectations.
“Part of your responsibility as a mentor is helping the founder realize that 10 asks just isn’t realistic. They have to pick one to move forward with.” At least one at a time. Yes, you’re a mentor, but that doesn’t mean you have endless bandwidth. You can also help them understand which of their asks is going to do the most to get them where they want to go.
4) Be ready to learn.
“Mentoring is a very rewarding experience, and I highly recommend it.” Along with the pleasure of sharing knowledge comes the very real experience of learning from the entrepreneur you’re supposed to be mentoring. “I learn from startups all the time,” Danielle says.
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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!
Applications are open now through April 8th for the first cohort of the Comcast NBCUniversal LIFT Labs Accelerator, powered by Techstars! The program will take place July-October in Philadelphia, PA. Join us on March 7th to learn more about the program and the companies we are looking for. We’ll welcome Techstars alumni as they share their experiences, followed by a fireside chat with Burt Herman on his journey as an entrepreneur co-founding Storify (acquired by LiveFyre).