How to Maximize the Value of Mentors in Accelerators

The questioning (negative) press about startup accelerators and incubators isn’t going to stop. It’s going to continue and likely increase. Some of it will be meaningless drivel mixed in with a healthy dose of ranting and raving (not dissimilar to the endless and cyclical discussions on whether we’re in a bubble or not.) But a lot of the press and blog posts we’ll see about accelerators and incubators will be very meaningful and important. I suspect more and more of this will come from people that have actually gone through accelerators; they being the best ones to reflect on their own personal experience.

Francisco Dao’s article, “The dirty secret behind the incubator boom” is an interesting one. The title is great –perfect for generating page views, retweets and discussion– although a bit over the top (but that’s what you need for blog post titles.) The analogy of entrepreneurs being like the humans in Soylent Green is also catchy.

Francisco makes an important point in the piece:

It is fairly standard practice for incubators to advertise huge rosters of mentors, but I can’t help but wonder how available or effective they are. In many cases, they seem like little more than the photos of fit personal trainers on the wall at the gym. The trainers look great, while the people working out are still flabby and out of shape because they don’t actually get much guidance.

Mentorship inside accelerators is definitely one of the biggest challenges.

I recently wrote about my own approach and issues with mentoring startups. Accelerators have absolutely stockpiled giant lists of mentors in order to create as big a network as possible. The value of those networks remains to be seen.

At Year One Labs we decided to only have 20 mentors (many of whom were investors as well.) We also only had 5 startups, so that’s still a pretty significant ratio. It was hard for us throughout the program to consistently bring the quality mentorship resource to the table. Mentors are extremely busy people, they have varying skill sets, and it’s unclear how structured or unstructured any mentorship component in an accelerator needs to be.

One of the most important things we did was encourage founders to reach out to mentors directly. We cut ourselves out as unnecessary middlemen. We wanted founders to build direct relationships with mentors. And that worked quite well. Even after our companies left Year One Labs, those relationships continued and strengthened, which was precisely the point of having mentors in the first place.

Startup founders: If you want to maximize the value of mentors in an accelerator, then it’s 100% up to you to do so.

Turns out that’s pretty much the case with everything you’re going to do as a startup founder. At the end of the day, even with investors, employees, advisors, parents, friends, support groups, etc. all around you, it’s up to you.

So my suggestion when you enter an accelerator is to go through the list of mentors with a fine-tooth comb. Figure out which ones you think will be most valuable to you, and reach out directly. Build that personal relationship with them using the accelerator as the conduit for initial communication. No decent mentor should ignore your email or call if they’re connected to you through an accelerator. It’s a “free pass” to reach out. And accelerator programs should make those connections possible, even for their most prominent mentors. If the mentorship responsibilities at an accelerator involve nothing more than “teaching a class” or doing one session with the group — and you’re not, as a mentor, available for direct contact and relationship building — I don’t think you should participate as a mentor.

The other benefits that come from having a big mentorship list are around funding, partnerships and acquisitions. The mentors are usually very well connected, many of them are angels as well, and they’ll open doors. That’s the expectation. But if there are no personal relationships between founders and mentors, I don’t see many doors getting opened. People are always careful with their Rolodex, it’s one of their most precious assets. They’re not going to open it up willy-nilly, just because they’re listed as a mentor for an accelerator. It still comes down to personal relationships and trust.

Startup founders: If you want to maximize the value of mentors inside an accelerator, it’s your job to build that trust.

If you run an accelerator, it’s your job to create enough opportunities for that trust building to occur.

As startup founders, you have to remember that you’re competing for attention. That means you need to be extremely strategic and aggressive (within reason) in sucking out as much as you can from the accelerator experience. Don’t wait for anyone to hand over the value; you need to leverage your participation in an accelerator to get all the value you possibly can. Tal Raviv, co-founder of Ecquire has a great post on his experience in two accelerators.

Here are some other ideas for how to maximize the value from mentors:

  • Understand their specialities. Mentors all have different skill sets and experience. Do your homework and figure out which mentors are the best ones for you to engage with at specific times. Timing is key here. When it’s time to raise money, go to the mentors with that expertise. When it’s time to focus on user acquisition, get closer with different mentors. You have to build the relationships early though, but time your use of mentors properly.
  • Get to the point. Don’t waste mentors’ time, get to the point. Have an ask. Make sure when you connect with mentors that you know why you’re doing it and what you’re looking for. Mentors will appreciate that. Asking for “general feedback” is a death trap. Mentors won’t know how to help, they’ll get frustrated, and you’ll be frustrated as well. Trust will be lost.
  • Engage with them on social media. Mentors are people too. Usually with big egos. And many of them are actively working on their own startups or have their own interests. Engaging with them online is a good way of building a relationship. Tracking what they’re doing is a smart way of showing that you care.
  • Take the classes / training sessions / etc. seriously. Most accelerators have some structured components to the program. Some founders may feel like this is a distraction, but that’s the wrong way to look at it. Think of it like a crash course in all the elements of running a startup. That’s an education that others just aren’t getting. But also realize that these sessions are an opportunity to build better relationships with mentors. Have questions ready, stay engaged, be the keener and soak it all in.

Going through an accelerator is a journey. For many, I think it’s transformative. Michael Nussbacher throws it all out there with his story, “A slice of humble pie at the accelerator“. It’s a good read.

Not all accelerators are created equal.

The variance in quality between accelerators is probably going to widen as well, although the people running accelerators are always trying to improve. At least the best people running accelerators. I’ve spoken with many directions / managers / founders of accelerators, and they’re working hard to try and provide a great experience and create tons of value for founders. The model for acceleration as we understand it today is fairly new, and it’s evolving very fast. Accelerators are startups themselves, which means they need to keep trying things, measuring the results, and iterating.

In the next 5-10 years, I’d expect the model to have changed significantly. That’s almost a given.

That doesn’t mean you should cut accelerators any slack — we need to hold them accountable to very high standards and goals — but at the end of the day it’s up to you. There’s not a single accelerator anywhere that can guarantee success. And while they can make some things easier, they don’t grease the wheels that much. Be careful about your expectations going in; the process is not going to be easy. Accelerators in a lot of ways make things harder because they compress time, create intense demands, and throw a ton at you all at once.

The only people that radically and continuously change the odds of success are the people running the startups.

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