Behind every successful entrepreneur, you can be sure to find one, if not many, invaluable business mentors who shepherded them along the way. Mentors can do wonders for you and your startup, but there are rules of engagement to be taken into consideration. StartLife highlights six important do’s and don’ts in startup mentorship.

The 6 do’s and don’ts in a nutshell

  1. Ask
  2. Be prepared
  3. Have no fear, share it
  4. Build a diverse pool of mentors
  5. Allow yourself to be challenged
  6. Give back

Ready? Let’s dive into them.

1) Ask

A mentorship is mentee driven. This means that you, as mentee, are in the driver’s seat. If you are looking for feedback, ask for it. If you want to be connected with a particular person or organization from your mentor’s network, ask for it. Don’t expect your mentor to guess what’s going on in your mind; take the initiative, schedule (regular) meetings with your mentor, share what you are working on and if you have specific needs, ask if and how your mentor can help you. But before asking, make sure your mentor knows what your goal is.

2) Be prepared

If you could have a 10-minute session with one of the most influential entrepreneurs in the world and could ask any question or make any request, would you prepare for that meeting or would you waste these valuable minutes by hoping something valuable may just come up during that meeting? I am sure pretty sure you would prepare! Treat the meetings with your mentor in the same way.

Mentors are more than happy to make their, often limited, time available, but it only works if you are well-prepared. So have your pitch deck ready and make sure that you know what you want to ask or discuss. You might for example say, “I’m at this stage with my business right now and this is what I am looking to achieve. I know you’ve worked on X,Y,Z. Can you share with me how you dealt with the following three issues?”

3) Have no fear, share it

Remember that there is no such thing as a stupid question! In a safe setting, all discussions are confidential and you can share your every thought and idea. If you are struggling in your startup journey, tell your mentor about your fears and doubts. Mentors have often overcome a lot of mistakes and hurdles themselves. They fully understand how hard it can be to get to the top and they have also had their fair share of doubts on their journey. As your trusted advisor, a good mentor always motivates and encourages you to make your own decisions and turn them into actions in the end.

4) Build a diverse pool of mentors

Don’t limit yourself to just one business mentor at the time, as there is no one-size-fits-all mentor. Much benefit is to be gained from a pool of mentors, who act as your personal advisory board. Mentors with varying fields of expertise, such as sales & marketing, research & development and leadership experience, can absolutely work together. Sometimes mentors even prefer working in pairs in order to leverage synergies for their mentee.

Also be aware that during the different stages of your startup’s life cycle, you will face unique challenges. Make sure to regularly reassess whether your current mentor is still a good fit for your current challenges and needs. A good mentor will be happy to discuss this with you, without taking offence, provided that you are respectful and explain why you feel it might be time for a different mentor change mentors.

5) Allow yourself to be challenged

When you search for a mentor, don’t try finding one who thinks the same way you do. A mentor with different experiences and personality can shed an entirely new light on matters. Embrace differences in perspectives and be open to critical feedback, then you will learn the most. Also take into account that you can learn -different but equally valuable things- from the experience and feedback of entrepreneurs who are at the same stage of developing their business as you are, in other words peer-to-peer learning.

6) Give back

It’s a common misconception that mentorship is a one-way transaction. Mentors can, and should, also benefit from your relationship. Most startup mentors enjoy being closely involved with your innovative adventure and take pride in seeing you, their mentee, make progress. Startup founders are known for their energy, drive and enthusiasm. It is not uncommon for mentors to get an energy boost and newfound enthusiasm through the conversations with their mentees.

You can show your gratitude in different ways, like adjusting your schedule to fit their availability, forwarding an article on a topic they are personally interested in or sending an e-mail few days after the meeting to let your mentor know how the last meeting has truly been of help to you and that you look forward to your next one. Make sure to be sincere though.

How to find a good mentor for your agrifood startup?

You have just read six important do’s and don’ts in startup mentorship and you feel you are ready to take on (extra) mentors. How do you go about finding a suitable mentor? We briefly discuss two options.

  1. You can find mentors on your own. Maybe you already have some entrepreneur or expert in mind. Remember the first do: (just) ask! But when you do, also make sure to be….prepared! How will you respond if a mentor asks for remuneration? What will you agree upon with regard to confidentiality?
  2. You can also use startup mentor programs offered by intermediaries. These programs have already lined up a pool of mentors who are willing to help out and who have already agreed to a set of mentorship rules. You can easily find numerous programs using a search engine like google. Some offer free mentorships, some ask for remuneration and others require an equity share. It’s up to you to decide what value you see in the mentorships offered.

At StartLife, we offer agri and food startups the possibility to connect with high level startup mentors! They have extensive domain expertise and experience, and are keen to support innovative startups that are out to make a difference. Visit StartLife’s startup mentor page to find out more.