The success of a startup depends on a mixture of skills, hard work, perseverance, a bit of luck and the right support. At StartLife we believe that startup mentors are truly an invaluable resource to help getting your dreams off the ground. We even dare to say that every startup needs a mentor. But why? What makes a startup mentor so invaluable? Who better to ask then a mentor and his mentee? We asked Ernst Visser (StartLife alumnus) and Nikolas Fahlskog (StartLife mentor) to share their thoughts and experience.
Let’s start off with a short introduction round.
Ernst Visser has a solid financial background as group controller, CFO and financial & strategic advisor. In 2018 he, and his co-founder Ewoud Overduin, started an action-oriented consultancy firm that helps existing entrepreneurs to scale-up their business. Now they are both working on their own technology-based startup that turns used jeans into clean cotton fibres. Ernst and Ewoud participated in StartLife’s acceleration program earlier this year. Through StartLife they got into contact with Nikolas Fahlskog, who became their startup mentor.
Nikolas Fahlskog has over 15 years of experience in breakthrough innovation and commercialization. For well over a decade he worked at Philips, where he fulfilled roles such as Senior Manager Consumer Marketing and Director Digital Innovation & Transformation. He was, amongst others, responsible for creating the digital innovation vision and strategy for Philips Healthy Food Services and Appliances. If you love shaving with Philips OneBlade, you may thank Nikolas. His passion for innovation and love for chaos eventually lead him to start his own innovation consultancy firm in, guess what…. 2018.
So first things first. Let’s address the big elephant in the room. Ernst, you have quite some track-record as an advisor and even help scale-ups grow. Why would you need startup mentoring?
Ernst: Fair question, but easily answered. Firstly, scaling up an existing company and starting a new company are two very different stages of a business, with entirely different challenges. Secondly, it does not matter how experienced you are, it is always valuable to have an external sparring partner. Even the best of leaders and entrepreneurs in the world have a mentor. So why not me?
Nikolas: well said. I could not agree more.
Okay. How would you both describe the role and added value of a startup mentor?
Nikolas: As Ernst just said, a mentor acts as a sparring partner who helps entrepreneurs find the right path. More specifically, the right path for them and their business. My role as a mentor is not to provide answers or solutions. I am to ask the questions that enables the entrepreneur figuring out the right course of action for his specific situation.
Ernst: Indeed. I don’t view a mentor as a free consultant that provides me tailor made answers and solutions. To me mentoring is all about providing guidance, structure and also emotional support. Afterall the road of a startup can be true roller coaster. When talking to your mentor you are ‘forced’ to put your thoughts into words, which by itself is already useful. But now you also have an independent and experienced person responding to it, which is even more helpful. Another great value of mentors is that they tend to have a large network that they might put into good use for you.
Only an experienced entrepreneur can be a great startup mentor. True or false?
Nikolas: I started mentoring startup right after some significant tenure at a large firm. So I am inclined to say that is not necessarily true, haha. At Philips I took various break-through products/technologies from idea to market. So I know what obstacles you will run into, what to do and certainly also what not to do! Having that kind of experience as a mentor is essential in my opinion.
Ernst: I fully agree with Nikolas, although we did ask ourselves this very same question when looking for a mentor. In the end we concluded it to be a bonus rather than a requirement. We do feel it is important that a mentor has gone through a similar experience, because theory and practice are often very different.
You say mentorship is about asking questions that help find answers. Can you give an example of a ‘typical’ mentor question?
Nikolas: Sure. I was mentoring another startup that had about six months left before they would run out of funds. They informed me how they wanted to spend their last money. I asked them: “Do you think your investor will appreciate hearing that you spent it on that when you ask him for more money? “If you put it that way, probably not.”, was their response. “So what would be better a way of investing your remaining money?”, I then asked. “Finding (more) customers!” Bingo!
Ernst: We saw the rise of a competitor in our field. Though as normal as this is, it made us feel a bit uncomfortable nonetheless. Nikolas asked us it the market is big enough to have more than one player. It is. Just with that one simple question he helped us restore our piece of mind and fully focus again on our own business development.
Should a mentorship always be a long-term relationship or would a few meetings suffice as well?
Nikolas: it all depends on the need of the entrepreneur. Sometimes a few meetings provide sufficient support to help an entrepreneur on his way. Others require, or value, more and longer support.
Ernst: Even a single meeting can be very insightful and helpful. But the longer the relationship lasts, the better you get to know each other. The mentor learns how you do business. You need less words to explain yourself. You open up even more, which allows the mentor to provide even better guidance.
What advice would you give to startup entrepreneurs to get the most value out of their mentor?
1) Don’t start a mentorship if you cannot take criticism. You must be receptive for the feedback you receive otherwise the mentorship will take you nowhere. Always remember that your mentor has no interest in pulling you down. All feedback is intended to help you move forward, both for your business as your personal development as an entrepreneur.
2) Don’t keep your early ideas under the radar until you think you are ready. If you wait until you are ‘ready’, you are in fact most likely too late already or at least have lost valuable time. Share your ideas and thoughts with others, including a mentor, as soon as possible and collect valuable input and feedback. It will definitely help you speed up your business development process.
1) Don’t wait calling your mentor until problems occur but schedule meetings on a recurrent basis, like one hour every other week or once a month. Just share what you are working on. You will soon notice that a mentor may discover potential pitfalls or opportunities that you are not even aware of yet.
2) A good mentor has an extensive network. Make sure to leverage that! If you need specific knowledge or skills, just ask your mentor if he knows someone with that particular knowledge or skill.
We hope the experience and thoughts of Ernst and Nikolas are of value to you. If you are an agrifood startup and interested in a mentorship, make sure to check our startup mentorship program and reach out to us if you feel our mentors could be of value to you.