How to Find the Right Mentor for Your Startup

Investing your time with those who have experience under their belt and outside perspective can make all the difference when you're working to balance the knowledge requirements of an early-stage company.

One of the key benefits of going through an accelerator or joining a startup community is gaining access to their network of mentors and advisors. At Dashboard.io, we've collected and analyzed reviews and feedback from thousands of mentorship sessions to add science to the art of finding someone who can help you solve your specific problems.

From thousands of hours of mentoring we've synthesized the key takeaways to help you find the best advisor for you and your company, make the most of your time together, and build a mutual ongoing relationship.

Finding your dream mentor

It’s a question that we repeatedly hear founders ask: “How do I find the right mentor for my company?” Even with access to a broad mentor network, you still have to narrow down your choices.

There are different approaches to take depending on the type of help you need at the time. For example, you might look for an individual who has direct experience in your specific market with a different product. Or for someone with specialized experience with a similar business model. Perhaps even someone with skills in a different market altogether would add a unique perspective.

Action Items:

Should you go for the big name?

It's instinctive to want a famous founder to be an advisor for your company. However, considering the quantity of requests they receive and their time constraints, we wanted to run an experiment to see whether notoriety translated into quality mentoring sessions, or if there are "diamond in the rough" mentors, who are able to provide high quality advice at or above the level of their more renowned colleagues.

Using AngelList followers as an indicator of popularity, here’s what we found:

While this isn't to say that a founder won’t receive quality time with more well-known mentors, it is a good idea to take a closer look at those who might not have the clout of an entrepreneurial celebrity, but do have the time and expertise that result in relevant, actionable advice.

You have to do more than just show up

Once you have office hours with a mentor scheduled, it pays to put in a small amount of effort upfront to ensure you make the most of your time together.

Get to know your mentor. Ideally you've already done some initial research into their professional background, but go a step further to get an idea what they’re like personally. Quickly researching their online profiles can give you an idea of their interests and help you both connect during your meeting and determine whether you’ll be a good personality match.

Next, create an agenda. This is the number one "hack" to a successful meeting. Take the issues you used to help select the mentor and narrow them down into crisp, succinct questions. For example, don't ask "What should I do to increase distribution?", instead get specific and show how you’re currently thinking about the problem and what you’re doing to solve it.

Mentor Question Templates:

"My goal is to achieve a 20% increase in leads from AdWords. I'm currently targeting X keywords and spending Y, with Z results so far -- what have you seen when you tried this?"

"I’m onboarding two inside salespeople within the next month and need to create a compensation plan. Here's what I've come up with so far based on our numbers. How does this compare to plans you have built?"

When you have your questions ready, send them to the mentor in advance of the session.

In studying mentoring, we frequently saw founders complain that they did not receive relevant takeaways or directly actionable feedback. It's important to realize that the key to an effective discussion is as much on the mentee to provide the background and set the stage as it is on the mentor to advise.

And as a side note to mentors, if you haven't received an agenda from a founder, we recommend reaching out beforehand, using the templates above, to ask specifically how you can help.

Ouch, my mentor hurt my feelings

One thing to prepare for is that your mentor may very well have negative feedback, and to do your best to prepare for that.

When you're speaking with them, it's important that both people keep an open mind and understand each other's perspectives. It can actually be the most beneficial thing to receive critical feedback from your mentor, as they come with keen insights into a company's product or market. If they’re honest but constructive, you should prepare to help them to see the framework behind your reasoning. Even if you disagree with advice, you may want to consider what you can test it against to either validate or disprove.

Follow up, follow up, follow up

We can’t say it enough - following up is critical to building a long term mutual relationship with your mentor. After the meeting, send a quick thank you email with a summary of your next steps and any action items they agreed to take on. If the session went well and you want to continue the relationship, consider asking permission to follow up with the results from implementing their advice.

Everyone likes to see their contributions put into action and mentors especially are more likely to want to stay involved with you and your company if they see it as a rewarding use of their time and energy.

The best mentors naturally want to work with the most promising founders, thus building a relationship based on your action creates mutual respect and trust. As you continue to work together, you should even start to ask yourself, “How am I helping my mentor?” You’ll be surprised how many doors it opens.