This article was written by Wade Foster, CEO of Zapier, a Mountain View, Calif. based startup that got its start in 2011 at the inaugural Startup Weekend Columbia. Zapier went on to participate in Y Combinator and raise $1.3 million from Bessemer Venture Partners, Draper Fisher Jurvetson and others.
Startup Weekend has now hosted over 1,000 events around the globe (almost 500 cities at the point of publishing). With a fast growing alumni network—currently more than 45,000 entrepreneurs—there’s a pretty good chance that if you’re in the startup ecosystem, the opportunity to participate in a Startup Weekend will come your way. At some point, it may be by invitation to be a mentor.
Through my experience in six Startup Weekends as a participant, speaker, judge and mentor, I’ve seen a lot of good mentoring and witnessed plenty of not so good mentoring, too.
Most people don’t intentionally do a bad job, but unfortunately their mentoring is still pretty bad.
Hiten Shah addressed this occurrence well:
I see it happening all of the time: Entrepreneurs get to a certain point in their lives, and they think it’s suddenly time to “give back,” and instead of listening to and observing their mentees, they spend a lot of time telling them the “right way” to be an entrepreneur/run a business/use their strengths based solely on their own experiences.
Though I’m certainly not a mentoring expert, my experience on both sides of the table has given me a unique vantage point to record what I like and dislike from Startup Weekend mentors. I’ve distilled those characteristics into the following eight Startup Weekend Mentor Tips.
1. Show Up
Most Startup Weekend mentors use just a few hours of the 54 hours available to actually help. Even worse, mentors try to do it on their own schedule. They’ll stroll in on Saturday afternoon and try to help teams that are already in execute mode and don’t have many questions. But late Friday night and early Saturday morning when teams are still figuring things out, many of the mentors are nowhere to be seen.
Instead, as a mentor, make it your goal to be around for as much of the weekend as possible. Don’t mentor on your own schedule. Mentor on the teams’ schedule. If you’re around, as soon as a team has a problem, they’ll be able to ask a question and get immediate help. I know this is unrealistic for some people’s schedule. If that’s the case, then don’t be a mentor. Startup Weekend isn’t every weekend of the year. It’s not too much to ask that once or maybe twice a year you clear your weekend schedule to dedicate your time to budding entrepreneurs.
2. Check in Every 8 Hours
It’s tempting as a mentor to “solve all the problems.” But it’s fine to just hang out. Don’t hound the teams. Instead, check in every 8 hours or so. Ask a few questions about their progress. If they’ve had any problems come up, give them a framework for solving the problem and moving on. If things are going well, then leave. Don’t bother a team if they don’t need advice.
3. Set up Shop in a Visible Area
Teams will need help and that won’t necessarily be on your timeline. And since you aren’t hounding the teams, they may not know where you are when they need help. So set up shop in an area that is highly visible. When the team needs help, they’ll know where to find you.
4. Don’t Encourage Direction Changes after Saturday Afternoon
If a team hasn’t found it’s grove by Saturday afternoon then it likely won’t find it’s grove by Sunday. Instead, encourage them to make progress on what they have already. And definitely don’t point them to a newer and shinier object in the room. That’ll just spur hours of more discussion. And for an event that’s motto is “No talk. All action.” that’s the last thing you want to do.
5. Mentor Whiplash is a Real Thing
These teams will have several mentors come by throughout the weekend. They’ll all have advice and often it’s conflicting. Let the teams know in advance that they will have mentor whiplash. The best thing they can do is to have a framework for thinking and proving out their own business model. Let them know that at the end of the day they have to make their own decisions about their team, their product and their company. So don’t do anything because a mentor said to do it; do it because that’s what is best for them and their business.
6. Don’t Pile on Your Own Opinions
Often times a Startup Weekend team is feeling out many variations of the same idea. This leads many mentors to encourage teams to build the thing that would be most useful to them, the mentor. While valid feedback for teams looking for a single customer, it’s not necessarily helpful for the business. It’s much better to listen to what the team is trying to do, and then give them a framework for thinking about their product and their business. Let them determine the final direction they want to go.
7. Your Mentorship won’t Change the Outcome
At lot of mentors hope that they can say some magic words or provide the spark for some special moment that will point a team to victory on Sunday night and continued business success past the weekend. That’s not the case.
The most a mentor can do is help a team save a bit of time by getting them to answers quicker. At most, it’s a few ticks better in one direction or a few ticks worse in the other direction. Teams will succeed or not on the merits of their own abilities.
8. Encourage and Celebrate with the Teams
For most Startup Weekend teams, the event is more about learning something new than it is about going all in on a business. The most important thing you can do is encourage the teams and individuals. Let them know that entrepreneurship is a real option and not something that only the Steve Jobs’ of the world can do.
And at the end of the weekend, celebrate with them. Congratulate them on a job well done. Make sure that even if their team or project falls apart after the weekend, they can still look back and know that they had a good time. And if a team or two seems like they have promise, point them to the resources they’ll need to really make a go of it.