Wherefore Art Thou, Mentors? – Turning Mentors into Startup Coaches

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Even though top mentors are nestled in the tight entrepreneurial networks of tier 1 cities, the startup ecosystem mustn’t work in isolation if it wants to see big things happen.


What’s Happening in Incubation in India Today?

What the startup ecosystem knows as an ‘incubator’ today is a concept primarily pulled from the hallowed palm tree-lined boulevards of Silicon Valley. Y Combinator has spawned some of the hottest names in startups, popularizing the concept of mentor-driven incubation (and acceleration). We have spent the past two years building Speed2Seed, Unitus Ventures’s program focused on supporting Indian incubators and accelerators in order to increase the number of investable startups. However, we’ve seen incubators shut down just as quickly as they started.

As one article points out, there are many areas in which incubators are falling short: access to capital, collaboration and support with the rest of the ecosystem, intellectual capital in the form of mentors, and an overall disconnection from the core startup community. A lot of these problems are correlated, especially in an incubator’s mentor pool. For India’s mentor-driven incubation programs, the lack of collaboration in the ecosystem and especially the limited access to quality mentors is a huge concern.  So, where are India’s startup mentors?

Wherefore Art Thou, Mentors?

“It’s a heady mix when people help each other to get a startup to takeoff,” – Abhishek Gupta, TLabs Accelerator

Getting a startup off the ground running has more to do with people than it does with a certain technology, product or IP. People buy things they love and/or need; people take risks to invest in entrepreneurs with innovative ideas; and people mentor entrepreneurs as they overcome the many obstacles getting in the way of becoming a strong, scalable venture. As Abhishek Gupta, COO of TLabs Accelerator, noted at the Speed2Seed Startup Summit 2016: Accelerating India’s Next-Gen Startups, “It’s a heady mix when people help each other to get a startup to takeoff”. What he means is that startups are surrounded by mentors and advisors for every part of the journey – investors, product gurus, marketing mavens, startup veterans who have succeeded and failed, and everything in between.

s2s-post2a-01During the Speed2Seed Summit, our panel of acceleration experts (representing Microsoft Ventures, 500 Startups, TLabs Accelerator, and Idea2Value) tackled some of the problems incubators in the ecosystem are facing. Mentorship, unsurprisingly, sprung up as a heated topic. The vivacious dialogue, complete with couch-leaping efforts to grab for the microphone went as follows:

“India does not have strong mentors as compared to places like the Bay Area.”
“Not true. India does not have enough strong mentors as compared to places like Silicon Valley. There are good mentors in India.”

“Okay, maybe. But there are far too many entrepreneurs and startups for our pool of quality mentors to support.”
“Yes, well it doesn’t help that nearly all of the quality mentors are primarily based in metro areas rather than out where these incubators are popping up.”

“No less, even in a metro, you have to be able to tap into that network of top notch mentors, which isn’t easy for outsiders as it is.”

India’s top mentors are nestled in tight networks in tier 1 cities, so an entrepreneur today has to either be very well-connected, privileged, or extremely lucky in order to actually be able to tap into a mentor’s intellectual capital. With the surge in entrepreneurship today, mentors are in high demand and are strapped on time.

We know that there is a huge knowledge gap, so how can we best help incubators access this intellectual capital and help entrepreneurs build a solid foundation?

Mentor-Driven Incubation…Without Mentors?

In an ideal world, those top quality mentors could easily jump out of their seats to go help a young entrepreneur based out of a tier-3 city. Unfortunately, that’s pretty unlikely. Most of these mentors and advisors are running their own businesses and work with startups on the side when they can. Further, an entrepreneur’s available mentor pool is heavily dependent on where they went to university or how deeply ingrained in the startup ecosystem they are. The same goes for incubators. While we know that mentorship is essential for startups, what really matters is the depth of engagement with mentors. Truth is, India’s top mentors cannot keep up with the rising number of entrepreneurs. This leaves us building mentor-driven incubation programmes that can’t tap into the depth of knowledge and expertise of mentors.

The previous blog post highlighted the importance of filling the startup knowledge gap in India. But when mentors aren’t around, the ecosystem needs to get creative. That means making sure our entrepreneurs and incubators understand the fundamentals without relying on direct mentorship, and helping to cultivate a pool of mentors that also know how to coach startups.  If India’s incubators are meant to succeed, new models and additional support are needed for incubators to see results. What if we could tackle all of the major questions that an early-stage entrepreneur would ask a high-quality mentor in a scalable way?


Bringing Scale to Mentorship

Speed2Seed piloted its VentureBasecamp Program in mid-2016 with the ambition to efficiently convey some of the most crucial and basic knowledge that a mentor can provide to an early-stage entrepreneur. We developed a comprehensive methodology with leading startup mentors through sessions ranging from How to Build Strong Startup Teams and what we call a Minimum Loveable Product, to understanding the difference between problem-solution fit vs. product-market fit.  Our next steps are to enable incubators to access this program, use it with their entrepreneurs, and help incubators work with entrepreneurs to actually turn this knowledge into action.

One issue that arises with top mentors is what we call “mentor burnout”, where they often get bombarded with the same questions over and over again. This causes mentors to lose interest in engaging with early-stage startups. While we know that depth of mentor engagement is key to a startup’s success, our goal was to get an entrepreneur to tackle what a mentor might see as more mundane. In doing so, mentors and startups can really dig into the juicy problems to solve together. And maybe once that startup leaves the incubator, they’ll be able to build more meaningful relationships with mentors, investors and accelerators when the opportunity arises.

Turning Mentors into Startup Coaches

Mentorship has become a buzzword today, with many prominent Indian businessmen and women offering their time and support to engage with startups. While the enthusiasm is exciting to see, it has also lead to a lot of inexperienced people stepping up as mentors as well. Granted, there are many roles that a mentor can fill —from pitch preparation, strategy, emotional support and beyond — but some mentors may not have their startups’ best interests at heart. Further, sometimes advice from inexperienced mentors can actually be detrimental.

1As an incubator tries to find mentors to support its entrepreneurs, they have to source the best possible options that they can from their network. These mentors, though accessible, need to step up their game and become not just ‘startup mentors’, but ‘startup coaches’. Startup coaches are more self-aware of what they can help startups with, and are able to work with the entrepreneur in a more productive engaging way. Most importantly, startup coaches guide entrepreneurs to the right answers versus doing the work themselves. To achieve this, incubator managers will have to improve the way that they engage with their mentors through better guidance, matchmaking, and on-going support. If we can pair a ‘startup coaches’ with entrepreneurs who have a solid understanding of startups, they will be far more able tackle a lot of obstacles on their way to building their business than before.

The issues around India’s incubators are multifaceted, but with more collaboration, support and creative intervention from other players in the ecosystem, we can make exciting things happen for startups — which is great for all of us.

Next up in this series: Human Capital and Financial Sustainability at India’s Incubators. Are incubators broken, or do we just have to find a more sustainable model?

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