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The Human Side of Startup Mentoring: Lessons learned in times of Corona

By Ajay Batra

The current pandemic continues to wreak havoc on individuals, families, and businesses. Personal hardships and economic challenges abound around the world, as we all learn to adjust to the new normal. With reduced demand, reduced funding, and volatile consumer needs, these have been especially trying times for startups. A recent TiE Delhi/Zinnov report states that due to Covid, 15% of startups have halted operations while 44% have cash runway for less than six months. As startups pivot, stabilize, and look for newer opportunities to grow profitably, mentoring becomes more important than ever.

Much like many other personal and professional situations, the relationship between startups and their mentors is also evolving in these times. Usually, there is an abundance of mentors swarming around entrepreneurs looking for ways to add value. While this is still largely true, the focus needs to shift to the quality and outcomes of such relationships. Based on my work with startups as a mentor or angel investor, I notice the following trends:

Think Value-Add: In distress mode, startups have been reaching out to all available connections and resources to help them make sense of the prevailing uncertainty. In the hope of finding mentors who are better at reading the future, and providing resilient solutions, many startups have lowered their bar. Frantically looking for men and women who are wiser than themselves, startups often compromise on the fundamentals that define a successful mentor-startup relationship. Rather than looking for more advice, startups need sharper and effective advice. Ensuring alignment with the startup’s mission, and personal chemistry should continue to be critical parameters in mentor selection, as should be a mentor’s experience in handling previous downturns in the specific industry.

Mentoring is 100% Empathy: Genuine mentoring relationships go beyond the realm of business and result in deep personal bonds that last decades. In Covid-times, the mentor must spend more time understanding personal anxieties, concerns, and the mental wellbeing of founders. While founders are working hard to keep their team’s morale high and their customers’ confidence intact, they need a safe place to be vulnerable. Mentors must provide such opportunities for founders to discuss personal, family, and business concerns – without feeling awkward or sounding unprofessional.

Need for greater intensity: Whether a startup is in the pre-launch, early-launch, or growth phase of its maturity, the current environment expects mentors to be more deeply involved with their startups. We notice a sharp change in not just the nature of mentoring conversations, but also their frequency. These days, it is not unusual for a founder to reach out to her mentors 2-3 times a week, as opposed to once a week/fortnight. A higher degree of responsiveness and responsibility from mentors has resulted in the natural trimming of the flab – name-sake mentors seeking badges are quickly drifting into the background.

Mirror-mirror on the wall: Mentors provide an effective mirror to their startup. As startups look for an objective evaluation of their readiness to handle the current challenges, mentors must keep a motivating tone in their approach, while being brutally honest about internal capabilities and external opportunities. In these times, it behoves mentors to take off the velvet gloves to ensure that a startup does all the right things to survive, pivot, and thrive before it is too late. Quite aptly, Richard Branson said, “While advisers and consultants can be very helpful, true mentors are effective partly because they are only interested in helping others succeed.”

Traditional mentoring has been a blend of guided advice [“revise pricing”] and enabling questions [“how will a price change impact you?”]. In current times, many entrepreneurs seem to lean towards quick answers and solutions from their mentors. Mentors must be cautious as this builds dependencies and does not let the founders develop their decision-making muscle. In this environment of re-visiting assumptions and figuring-things-out, mentors must accept that they will not have all the answers, and show as much willingness to learn and unlearn as their mentees.

Source: HR World – Economic Times