Startup Mentoring
17 November 2014

Startup Mentoring in Europe, Why and Where

Tomorrow Euromentors Association for Digital Entrepreneurs. 

When you start a business, you need support. And support might mean money, but also advice. How do I hire my first employee? What should I look at? What’s the best model to try? What should I prioritise and how should I carry the business? Experience from mentors is key for entrepreneurs, who always face challenges – both in their businesses and personal lives.

There are 53 accelerators in Europe – and the number is increasing – and one of their major goals is to mentor the startups they select. When Jed Christiansen, founder of Seed-DB, carried a research for the Startup Europe’s Accelerator Assembly, he asked participants ‘what were the most important benefits they received from their accelerator experience’. What he found might surprise you: money? Oh no. Mentorship.

“One of the most consistently cited benefit of an accelerator program for startups was the mentorship, coaching, and feedback they received during the program”, the study cites. And specific comments, from founders asked, included sentences like: “defining the business more via mentorship”, “trustworthy, insightful advice from experienced entrepreneurs and business people” and how they were “regularly challenged on what we were doing and why were doing it”.

What’s mentorship? What does it mean to be a great mentor? Back in 2011, David Cohen, founder of the US based accelerator Techstars (which also has headquarters in London), wrote his “mentor’s manifesto”. He was trying to define the behaviours a mentor needs to be great – and what entrepreneurs should demand then from them. Among his advice, he told to be direct, listen, separate opinion from fact, guide (do not control) and “Know what you don’t know. Say I don’t know when you don’t know. “I don’t know” is preferable to bravado”.

Is that what startups need? What’s its state of play and how can it be better? Here, we take a look at it – based on what European entrepreneurs shared.

I want a mentor that really knows what is saying. If I have found a company, can I be a mentor too? No. Or that’s not what entrepreneurs need. “In some cases”, the document describes, “the mentors simply didn’t have the domain-specific expertise in particular markets that startups needed”.

“The internet” or “mobile” are not just “a model”. The different markets (it’s not the same launching in Germany than launching in China than launching in the US) and economic sectors play a role – and what entrepreneurs demand is someone who knows exactly the niche they attack.

I want a technical mentor. Remember that, during our Unconvention, one of the sessions was the Innopitch, in which three mentors (Carlos Silva from Seedrs, Carlos Eduardo from Seedcamp and Jan Reichelt from Mendeley) advised the six finalists on their models. Remember that one of the advices we heard was that you shoud not “understimate the complexity of building the technology”. While business matters, the technology in which business is based does too. That’s why startups note that they want mentors focused on technical solutions.

It’s just too much. As the research says, “founders often described mentorship sessions as ‘overwhelming’ and that mentors weren’t as blunt with founders as they should have been”. When asking for advice, and spending your time (the time you’re not spending working!) on it, you want to get the message and avoid the noise. Perhaps “too much” mentoring can turn counter-productive.

“Stronger, different or a lead one”. “Some programs”, research notes, “have so many mentors involved that founders spend a lot of time just figuring out who they can and should listen to engage with further, and that the wide variety of opinions are a distraction”. Message versus noise strikes back: entrepreneurs do not need too many advice, but strong and valuable ones.