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Captaining a new enterprise is like constructing a parachute after you’ve been thrown out of a plane: It’s difficult, it’s dangerous, you’re pressed for time and a wrong decision can be fatal. When faced with the pressures of starting a new company, your ability to act quickly, decisively and correctly will depend on experience, skill and knowledge. If you are short on any of these attributes (not uncommon for the first-time entrepreneur), mentoring can make the difference between survival and doom.
Mentoring is more than advice
To be clear, a discussion of mentoring must distinguish between the expert, committed, hands-on and personalized guidance a good mentor provides and the mountains of generic, if well-meaning, advice available from a random assortment of friends, family, websites and newsletters. The adjectives associated with a good mentor include:
- Experienced: By this, we mean experience as an entrepreneur who has launched a successful company in the same or similar industry. The best experience is relatively recent, relevant and relatable, providing the foundation for trusting the advice given.
- Candid: A good mentor is candid yet supportive, telling you what you need to know even if the message is disconcerting. Sugarcoating is easier on the ego but ultimately unhelpful. Nonetheless, a good mentor can deliver bad news in a supportive way that helps you stay motivated and positive.
- Expert: You need advice that complements your own knowledge and expertise. It’s unusual for any one entrepreneur to have an equally strong background in technology, finance, operations, management and all the other skills required to make the right decisions rapidly. Your mentor(s) should fill the gaps in your own abilities with expertise they’ve gained through experience.
- Committed: You’d like a mentor to stay involved. Buy-in from a mentor ensures a continuity in the guidance you receive and a willingness to help you work through difficult decisions.
Investors as mentors
Angel investors are individuals and groups that fund promising startups. They are known as angels because they will often tread where venture capitalists (VC) and private equity firms fear to go—into the risky world of promising but unproven business ideas. They also frequently serve as mentors. That should be a win-win: You, as a budding entrepreneur, gain the benefit of experience and contacts, while the angels take positive action to help protect their investments. Angels serving as mentors are more likely to stay committed to your venture.
The Angel Capital Association (ACA) is the world’s largest angel professional development organization, with more than 13,000 investors in 260 angel groups and accredited platforms. The ACA membership has invested in more than 91,000 ventures. This is a good starting place to identify the angel investor groups in your region and investigate the opportunities for mentorship.
Once a startup has grown to the point it needs additional rounds of funding, entrepreneurs will often turn to venture capital firms and private equity firms for financing. These firms frequently provide mentorship programs that are appropriate to your company’s development stage. For example, New Enterprise Associates (NEA) is a large VC firm with mentorship programs for product design entrepreneurs.
Specialized investors as mentors
You might also be interested in mentorship programs from specialized angel investment groups and other sources. Some examples:
- Hivers and Strivers invests in entrepreneur graduates of the U.S. military academies and offers mentors who serve as board members and advisors.
- The Veteran Entrepreneur Network provides one-on-one business mentoring by veterans for veterans.
- Pipeline Angels arranges boot camps and funding pitches for female entrepreneurs who need early stage investments. The boot camps feature mentoring, education and practice sessions.
- Golden Seeds is an active early-stage investment firm that offers educational and mentoring support.
- 500 Startups specializes in early funding and mentorship for minority-based ventures. They feature a Seed Program with four months of mentoring, $150,000 in seed money and other support.
- Black Founders is an organization that provides access to mentorship and advice to black entrepreneurs.
Non-funding mentorship resources
Not all, or even most, mentorship arises out of funding programs. You can look to several types of resources for mentoring that doesn’t directly involve financing, but that can lead to funding through contacts and programs. Some examples are:
- Incubators: These are support networks that offer education and mentorship to entrepreneurs who want a good grounding before launching a venture. The International Business Innovation Association is a nonprofit organization that helps mentor and support entrepreneurs by connecting them with incubators, accelerators, co-working spaces and other organizations.
- Small Business Development Centers (SBDC): SBDCs are funded in part by the Small Business Administration (SBA) in conjunction with universities and state economic development agencies. SBDCs offer small-business owners free consulting on many topics, including business plan development, financials, manufacturing and many more.
- SCORE: Another SBA partner, SCORE is America’s largest provider of volunteer business mentors. With more than 300 chapters and 10,000 volunteers, SCORE make mentoring available through a simple application process. Like the SBDCs, SCORE can help business owners with business plan preparation, finances, marketing and other challenges.