As smart as you might be, you probably don’t have all the answers between yourself and the accelerator staff. Enter mentors. These are experts in their various fields on the founder, investor, or corporate side of things. Almost every accelerator program has some form of a mentor network. Those that do typically enjoy overselling just how amazing that network truly is. The truth is that mentor networks are supplemental to your own staff and experience because at the end of the day, the more experience you have in-house and make available for your founder daily, the better.
Mentor networks can, however, be a powerful deal flow recruiting tool. Founders like to look at your web page and see lots of smiling faces from authorities in their respective spaces. That’s because early-stage startups are eager to expand their networks but that can take a long time to develop. So they view accelerators and investors as shortcuts in this area. Just be honest with founders and yourself about their involvement in the program. I’ve found that it’s better to have a bespoke approach with each startup you work with when it comes to mentors, their expertise, their involvement, dedicated time, etc. Match them up with a few of the right mentors instead of a large list of people that may or may not be relevant to their company. The stronger the match, the more valuable the interactions will be. In some cases, I also ask the founders to make a wish list of people they want to meet. That might be a specific person or just anyone in their industry.
As an accelerator manager, your main job is to deal with people. Mentors are the external rockstars you bring in to help the companies understand the lay of the land and prep them for when they graduate from your program. I’ve worked with a lot of them, and at the risk of generalizing, let’s take a closer look at each type.
Let’s start with the best mentor you can possibly get on board: The all-star successful and well-known founder or business leader. They have proven they can build a big business and successfully exit it. In true ‘pay it forward’ style they now dedicate a fair amount of time to helping the next generation of founders. Due to their success, they are often cash-rich but time-poor, so you’re typically lucky to get them to come into your program just once. They’ll do a talk, usually in fireside chat format, and perhaps meet a few companies. Be respectful of their time and make sure they have a smooth experience so you can get them to come back again.
The Mentor Prostitute:
Let’s swing the pendulum all the way now and talk about one of the worst mentors you can get: The mentor prostitute. They are mentors in no less than 20 other programs and proudly display that fact on their LinkedIn, website, resume and occasionally shout it from street corners. They have more advice to give than they have the experience to match, but that doesn’t stop them from sharing it. They email you constantly, trying to become a mentor in your program. This is typically a red flag. The best mentors you’ll have to recruit in, not the other way around.
The Investor Mentor:
Smart investors will actually be very open to mentoring in your program. They need a way to expand deal flow and you can really get to know a company by watching them for 3 months in an accelerator program. There is a very, very small chance they’ll invest. But either way, it’s a net positive for both parties. Given their experience, and as high-frequency meeting people, they are also the best candidate for setting up office hours sessions with batch companies. For even more value, ask your investor mentors if they’ll do mock investor pitch sessions with your companies to better prepare them for the real-world investor meetings.
The Growth Hacker:
Since most startups in an accelerator program are looking to learn how to grow faster, these are great people and you need to have them in your mentor network. Ideally, you’ll have growth mentors who are focused on online marketing (paid ads, searches, social media), and others who are more focused on the sales team and process development. Since this type of person typically also has a full-time job or works for an agency you can sometimes recruit them by allowing them to sell their services to companies in the batch.
The Intangible Mentor:
Building a startup is not just about the things you can touch like investment or growth hacks. It’s also about the softer things such as people management, building confidence, and perhaps most important not burning out as a founder. To address these areas you also need mentors who are perhaps far removed from the world of startups. One example might include an expert on improv comedy to help founders speak more naturally. Or an expert of sleep health and nutrition for example to help founders live better lives and run at peak performance.