By Ben Carcio
#GiveFirst is the Techstars mantra for a reason. It works.
As part of the 2011 Techstars Boston class and more than 10 years as a mentor, I have seen life-changing things happen to founder after founder from Techstars. The things that were given to me, I am now trying to give back to others through active mentorship.
But I also believe that the mentorship process has some room for improvement.
It is easy to update your LinkedIn profile and declare yourself a Techstars mentor; thousands of people list themselves as mentors. But it is really hard to be an effective mentor, especially for founder operators. Founder operators, like me, like to fix problems which can lead to getting too involved with the companies, which takes time and effort from the mentor and can cause distractions for the founders. We can fix this by clearly defining the mentor relationship with specific accountability.
At the beginning of a relationship, each mentor should be very clear on what they can provide to founders but, more importantly, what the mentor wants from the relationship. I remember during my program never being sure exactly what to expect out of the relationship — is this mentor an investor? Are they looking for a job? That is why it is so important to understand what each mentor wants and what value they can provide.
Example mentors include:
Investor looking for great companies to invest in
Advisors looking for consulting roles with some level of compensation (equity, fees)
Former operators looking for a new opportunity
Current founder starting a new company
Innovator at a big company and looking for the next thing
Those simply wanting to give back
The better both sides understand the relationship goals, the better we can create effective mentor accountability.
I have found that Techstars alumni make the best mentors to build a mentor base with. They have been through the process and know what it takes to create an effective Techstars program, and they can help other mentors.
But alumni mentor engagement ebbs and flows. Early-stage founders are busy working on their companies and often do not have the time to commit to working with Techstars as a mentor. As priorities change over time many founders find themselves ready to give back years after completing Techstars. This happened to me, over 10 years my involvement was up and down and it wasn't until I exited my company that was I able to put the time in. We need to activate this existing network and find the next generation of Techstars mentors.
Techstars alumni are an excellent source for early customers for our founders. When I was going through the program I would have loved to have been able to connect with the amazing number of companies in the Techstars network today. There are potentially trajectory-changing customer opportunities within this network — for example, at Promoboxx, Techstars helped create an amazing opportunity to work with General Motors which helped turn us into a real company when few others were ready to take a chance on us.
There is a massive opportunity for all Techstars mentors to drive business development for founders. We should all be meeting with these early-stage companies, helping them work through the customer development process, and, hopefully, becoming customers ourselves.
Techstars was life-changing for me as an entrepreneur and it completely changed the trajectory of my company, my career, and my life. As an alumnus and mentor, I definitely subscribe to the #GiveFirst mantra, because I get energy from working with founders because it reminds me of why I started a company in the first place. That is why I love to be around entrepreneurs because they get it, and I get as much energy from them as I hope they do from me.
#GiveFirst does not need to mean receiving nothing in return, by mentoring the mentors, we can create a better, more impactful future for Techstars’ founders and for us all.