005 How to Find a Great Mentor
Like most people, I was lost and confused my freshman year of college. I had just moved across the country to a city I had never spent more than a handful of days in, surrounded by thousands of strangers who seemed so much smarter and more experienced, and ready to embark on a four year adventure with so many potential paths. I knew I was interested in entrepreneurship, but I had no idea where to start.
Then I met Neil and Arthur.
Neil Shah and Arthur Woods were seniors at the time, and both were entrepreneurs as well -- a couple years prior, Neil started a fair trade tea company and Arthur launched a farmers market delivery service. But what made Neil and Arthur really different from the typical college students with senioritis was their penchant for mentorship. They painstakingly started a social entrepreneurship fellowship program that would take in 10-15 freshman each year, expose them to industry leaders in the local area, and help them get their own ventures started.
Within the first few weeks of college, and with a bit of dumb luck, I was accepted into their fellowship--and Neil and Arthur quickly took me under their wing. Over countless coffee sessions (to this day, I can't believe how generous they were, hanging out with silly freshmen), the two embedded in me the fundamentals I still carry to this day--how to talk to customers, how to follow up after meetings, how to be productive, and so much more. Just being in their presence was inspiring.
There's no chance I'd be the person I am today without their help, and it's made me embrace the insane value of having mentors. A great mentor is like reading the ultimate self-development book: not only giving you tips, but adapting its advice to meet you exactly where you are in life. After meeting with a great mentor, I walk away feeling like I just downloaded a whole set of lessons--experiences in what to do and what to avoid--into my brain, ready to put them into action. They're so important I basically wrote an ode to them after our acquisition!
What's surprising to me is how few of my friends and colleagues seem to have mentors, or at least ones they keep in regular touch with. It's crazy to me. Whether you're starting a company, or trying to excel at work or school, I promise having a few great mentors will be one of the best decisions you'll ever make.
One quick, but important, note about mentors: most people would be super happy to be your mentor. You may feel like you're just being annoying or taking up someone's time, but it's just not the case. You're providing them an opportunity to give back and, in the process of teaching, a mentor clarifies her own thinking and learnings.
So, how do you find a great mentor?
What Kind of Mentor
First, you need to figure out what kind of mentor you're looking for. Specifically, what do you need help with, and what kinds of experiences would a mentor ideally have in order to help you?
- Career advice / self-improvement (i.e. recommendations on what to learn in order to level up, job opportunities, etc.)
- A particular problem you're trying to solve right now at work (i.e. stuck on sales, need legal advice, etc.)
- Life (i.e. how to deal with certain family situations, etc.)
There are at least two levels of mentors to consider:
X + 1
To steal a phrase I learned from Arthur: I've found that some of the best mentors are "x + 1"--they're people who are just a step further along in what you need help with. For example, the most helpful mentors for me right now are people who have recently successfully built a startup (ideally in B2B and with a similar type of contract size and customer).
Duke Chung started a customer service software company while in college and successfully sold it to Microsoft 14 years later. Every time I meet with him, I walk away with shivers because his advice is so poignant and relevant. Nemo Chu grew two internet companies from zero to 7-figure revenue numbers in 3 years. Each time I've met with him, my brain explodes because he knows how to push things to the limit.
The best thing about X + 1 mentors is their recency and relevancy -- the experience is fresh in their mind, so their tactics and perspectives are fresh as well. As a result, their advice tends to be much more accurate and actionable. X + 1 mentors are also more accessible -- they're successful, but it's not like trying to get in contact with Oprah.
These include professors, researchers, consultants, reporters, industry veterans, and venture capitalists. They're really helpful for getting the lay of the land. Thanks to their experience, they have the benefit of having a birds-eye view of a certain issue or industry. For example, if you're trying to talk to some potential customers to validate your business idea, meeting with an "expert" can be equivalent to meeting a batch of customers all at once.
Steve Kaplan is our lawyer but generally our mentor on all things investors and fundraising. He's someone we know we can call anytime and get the right answer from. Max Wessel currently runs SAP's accelerator and, as both a venture capitalist and angel investor, is my go-to person when I need to understand the broad trends and opportunities in any industry.
How to Reach Them
By a wide, wide margin, the best way to reach a mentor is through an introduction. Simply put, you find someone you look up to (a boss, a coworker, a teacher, a friend) and ask them if they know anybody who might be willing to chat with you about ____. This is why it's so important to know what kind of help you're looking for--often, you don't know the exact person you want to meet, but being specific empowers others to think of their network on your behalf.
I wrote last time about exactly how to ask for an introduction, so you have no excuses!
Power tip: when you actually do meet with a mentor, asking them to introduce you to others who you should also meet with is one of the best habits you can ever have. The reason is because if the mentor is successful (and as generous as a Neil or Arthur), they can open the door to so many other successful people that are at their level. It's like a virtuous cycle of mentors!
If you have somebody who you really want to meet and you definitely have no mutual connections with them, you're onto plan B: cold emailing them. It helps to craft a really strong email--one that's concise, relevant, and makes clear you're asking for their advice (and not trying to sell them something).
Yep, that's Washington Wizards and Caps owner/mega-investor/former AOL executive/author/Georgetown alum/Emmy award-winning producer Ted Leonsis himself responding to me at 6am and taking an in-person meeting with me. Turns out, he was interested in getting an on-the-ground perspective of what it was like to be a college entrepreneur at his alma mater. This experience alone made me a fully believer that it never hurts to try. :)
Getting a mentor is one of the highest-leverage things that anybody, not just entrepreneurs, can do, and--best of all--it's something you can do right now. So go do it!
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Who are your mentors? Share in the comments below!