Mentor — someone who teaches or gives help and advice to a less experienced and often younger person (Merriam-Webster dictionary)
With the proliferation of accelerators and co-working spaces in the startup world, everyone is touting their long list of impressive mentors. Many of the people on these mentor lists are truly impressive and can dispense invaluable advice to young startups. But are they really mentors?
The word mentor hints to an experienced sage (e.g. veteran entrepreneur, investor or high corporate position holder) that helps guide the young and inexperienced startup through the stormy waters of establishing and scaling a business venture. In his excellent book Mastery, author Robert Greene claims that having the guidance of an experienced mentor is key to achieve swift proficiency in any field, and truly every business man or woman should have at least one mentor to help them out.
The problem is that in reality most so-called mentors are really busy people. They generously give from their time to make an appearance in an accelerator/incubator/co-working space, lecture the cohort, and provide an hour or two of office hours. During this time they try and asses the strengths and weaknesses of many different startups, and will usually drop a bombshell on the poor entrepreneurs (“you need a better go to market strategy”, “your metrics are wrong”) and then leave.
I am sure that the information mentors give can be indispensable. But a single engagement with the fledging startup is rarely enough. To be effective, the mentoring process needs to be a relationship between the two parties that lasts for (preferably) years. During this time the mentor has the ability to truly understand the business, feel-out the team and provide real value.
The habit of giving a one-time advice can in fact be harmful for the startups as they usually lack the tools to ensure that the advice is followed upon properly. In those cases they would actually be better off with retaining a professional service provider who has the capability and knowledge the startup team may lack (for example business planning, market research, marketing or business development), but require payment for their services. Regretfully, the allure of free advice is often too strong, and most entrepreneurs would prefer a free “mentor” to a dedicated paid consultant.
So yes, anyone can call himself is a mentor, even though s/he is really just an expert dispensing advice. I know, since I myself have sinned and called myself a mentor for several accelerators and incubators, even though I actually truly mentor only 1% of the companies I work with. The rest I just try to educate as much as I can within the limited time-frame, and perhaps nudge in the direction I believe would be best for them. If the companies need more help, they are welcome to work with me on a paid basis. Frankly I can really mentor pro-bono only 1–2 companies a year, since the process is very demanding for me and I would be doing them a dis-service if I took on more companies under my wing.
And I am sure my case is no different than the thousands of people with the tag-line “mentor” in their LinkedIn description. This word is over-used, mostly incorrect and almost always wrong. Can someone suggest a better one?