Startup Mentorship — Who Benefits and How to Start One

7 min read

If you’re looking for guidance on how to start a business, or need solid advice on running your startup from someone who’s “been there,” then you’re not alone. Studies cited by show that mentorship has helped 70% of small startups survive their first five years, while businesses that received mentorship were able to increase their annual revenue by an average of 83%. 

Even the most successful entrepreneurs benefited from the advice of mentors that helped and supported them. Bill Gates happily credits some of his success to the support from his own mentor, Warren Buffet. As he explained in an interview on CNBC, “I pick Warren as somebody I have learned an immense amount from, just hearing his stories of how he dealt with tough situations, how he thought long-term, how he models the world. If you get a chance to spend time with people like that, it’s fantastic.”

So, you’re in pretty good company — but how can you establish a relationship with a mentor, and what benefits should you expect from a startup mentorship?  Here’s what you need to know.

What Is Startup Mentorship?

Why Is Mentoring Important?

How Mentoring Benefits Startups and Their Founders

How Mentoring Benefits the Mentor

Top Tips for a Successful Startup Mentor Relationship

How Do I Find a Mentor?

What Is Startup Mentorship?

A mentor is someone who acts as an advisor to a less experienced individual, who is known as the mentee. Mentors draw upon their knowledge, skills and experience to offer advice and guidance to their mentee. In function, they can be a teacher, a coach, a confidant, a role model, a consultant — even a friend.

In businesses, especially for startups, a mentor will guide their mentee by sharing insights into establishing business goals, overcoming challenges and by sharing contacts such as other professionals or investors. In a way, the entire startup ecosystem is a network of mentorship, made up of people who collaborate, share their expertise and help each other out.

Why Is Startup Mentoring Important?

Mentorship itself is a deeply valued relationship that is older than modern civilization. The term actually originates in Homer’s Odyssey with the advisor Mentor, who guides Odysseus’ son Telemachus while his father is off fighting in the Trojan War. Though applicable in all parts of life, mentorship has a long and storied history in business, with Gerard Roche writing in a 1979 issue of the Harvard Business Review that nearly two-thirds of surveyed top executives had a mentor — and those who did reported earning more money and being happier with their careers.

A study on the Science of Effective Mentorship in STEMM found that mentorship plays an essential role not only in professional development, but also as essential psychosocial support. The key areas of mentorship support are:

  • Psychological and emotional support in overcoming challenges
  • Modeling important aspirational behaviors, values and attitudes
  • Career guidance by interrogating and critiquing goals, interests and decisions
  • Skill development through education, training and evaluation
  • Sponsorship by offering public support and advocating for the mentee

Mentors play a unique role in an individual’s professional success. While advisors and consultants can also help startups, their focus tends to be exclusively upon aspects of the business or industry, rather than coaching the individuals. Mentors may also bring a range expertise in relevant areas such as team management, marketing, legal matters and product development.

How Mentoring Benefits Startups and Their Founders

When we talk about startup “founders” from a mentoring standpoint, it’s not just the single “idea” person or equity holders that head the startup. Every early team member, whether they’re responsible for product development, sales, marketing or finances is a founder who can benefit from startup mentorship. Here are the main areas where mentorship benefits startup founders:

  • They ensure you don’t have to reinvent the wheel — There’s a lot of trial and error that goes into startups, from market research and technological innovation to product development and marketing. If you haven’t done any of that before, then the guidance of a mentor could help you avoid making too many mis-steps. This can save you thousands of hours and millions of dollars.
  • They speedrun your ability to grow your network — Building a network is a lifelong affair, but as a startup you need to secure investments early — possibly even before your startup actually exists. Startup mentors can be a powerful “hack” to connecting with venture capitalists, angel investors and other supporters to get the funding you need. A startup mentor can also help identify customers, recruit talent and make referrals.
  • They cut through the B.S. and tell it like it is — A mentor isn’t an employee, which means they’re able to approach issues with a more unbiased eye. While they’re there to serve as a coach and advisor to help you grow and scale, they aren’t beholden to your success. While that can mean weathering some tough love if they call you out on bad decisions or poor planning, you’ll be better off for it in the long run.
  • They raise your own esteem and clout — Whom you’re associated with can go a long way toward raising your startup’s reputation, branding and social proof. When a startup mentor takes you on, that’s an endorsement that signals to others that you should be taken seriously.

How Mentoring Benefits the Mentor

Startup mentorships aren’t just beneficial for the mentee — the mentor also stands to gain a lot from the relationship. If you have experience, here’s why you should consider mentoring others who are following in your own footsteps:

  • It furthers your own career — Mentorship builds your own resume and qualifications, making you more qualified than others who do not have mentorship experience. Being a mentor can also lead to many additional opportunities in your personal career.
  • It allows you to continue to build your own network — Mentoring others is a great way to continue to further build out your network. Growing your network makes it an even more valuable resource, allowing you to find important connections and build your own brand.
  • It keeps your perspective fresh — Those who are new to the field often have a different way of thinking or a unique vision that you haven’t considered. Mentoring can give you a new perspective on products, technology or processes — which is especially helpful in fast-moving industries like IT, communications and sustainable development.
  • It makes you a better leader — Becoming a mentor can also strengthen your confidence and build your leadership skills. This can make you more effective in leading teams and engaging in further mentorship as you continue to become a master of what you teach.

Top Tips for a Successful Startup Mentor Relationship

A startup mentorship relationship is a give and take partnership. Both mentor and mentee are responsible for building the relationship and ensuring that, not only are both parties benefiting, but the partnership continues to support future success.

  • Mentors should know when to coach and when to advise — Really great mentors know when to act as coaches to encourage their mentees and when to provide more straightforward business advice. A mentor knows how to avoid telling the founders what to do, and instead is able to ask guiding questions to help the founders get to the answer. This allows the mentee to further develop their own ideas and helps them feel more comfortable when seeking assistance.
  • Both parties need to be open to learning — For all the knowledge that a mentee will receive from the relationship, a startup mentorship is a great growth and learning experience for the mentor as well. The mentor shouldn’t assume they “know it all.” The mentee might have an innovative approach that needs some workshopping, or a specific insight that the mentor may have overlooked. Mentoring is an opportunity for both mentor and mentee to develop as professionals and as leaders.
  • Life advice can be as important as business advice — Mentoring isn’t just about teaching someone on how to build a financial model or writing a better business plan; it’s also about offering support throughout the highs and lows of building a startup, how to deal with stress and ways to cope with challenges. Mentors should have a feel for when to switch from a no-nonsense approach to showing empathy when needed. At the same time mentees should see their mentors as more than just a resource to lean on — they’re someone who’s working through their own challenges and toward their own goals as well.
  • Engage in active listening — Good communication is essential for both sides. A mentor may know little to nothing about some aspects of the mentee’s business, the team or the market. The mentee may not know which questions to ask. In discussions, use questions to learn and clarify issues, especially around the mentee’s business proposition, vision and approach to the market.
  • Be honest with each other — Trying to avoid confrontation or sugar-coating bad news; this just delays the inevitable, and may cause even more harm. Mentors shouldn’t be afraid to tell the founders what they need to hear, not just what they want to hear. At the same time, mentees should be comfortable offering feedback to their mentor, even if it may be uncomfortable to do so.
  • Continue sharing connections and opportunities — Even if the active mentoring may end at a certain point, keeping the relationship going will ensure that both parties continue to share benefits over their lifetime. Opening up networks is a key element of mentoring and, like compound interest, will grow more valuable over time to pay dividends far into the future.

How Do I Find a Mentor?

So, how do you find a startup mentor? Generally you want to try to avoid “cold calling” someone to ask for mentorship. While that could work, they’re unlikely to respond to someone they don’t know (after all, they’re likely already mentoring others). There are also a lot of unknowns — will you work well together? Is their experience applicable to your business? Will they be available when you need them?

Forming a relationship before committing is extremely helpful and a higher guarantee of success. Here are some ways you can approach making new connections:

  • Startup community platforms are good resources for finding contacts and building relationships. Startup accelerator programs like YCombinator and Techstars provide access to helpful resources for launching your startup — including new connections and experienced mentors.
  • Business platforms such as LinkedIn or dedicated mentorship sites like Micromentor can offer great opportunities to get in touch with people from your industry, or can introduce you to mentors with whom you wouldn’t otherwise have had the opportunity to connect. These larger online communities can also help you tackle specific problems you’re facing.
  • Studying in graduate degree programs, such as the University of San Diego’s online degree programs, is a great way to form relationships with peers, to learn from experienced faculty and to build contacts in the community. Many professionals develop their longest-lasting and most trusted mentoring relationships in higher education.

For aspiring entrepreneurs, USD’s Master of Science in Innovation, Technology and Entrepreneurship program connects you with world-class faculty that possesses a great depth and breadth of experience as startup entrepreneurs, high-achieving tech CEOs, patent-holding Ph.D. engineers, sought-after industry advisors and award-winning academics. Contact us to learn more about the program and its community.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I have multiple mentors?

Yes! In fact, it’s more than likely you’ll have several mentors throughout your professional career. Every mentor has their own specialities and perspectives. One mentor may be key in building your social network, while another could provide valuable industry insights.

Are there downsides to mentorships?

Generally no, though mentors can be very busy and may not be able to respond to every incident or emergency. Mentors are under no obligations to you, and therefore advise at their own discretion. It can also take time to find a really good mentor with whom you can connect.

What happens if I don’t get along with my mentor?

While friction in a relationship is bound to happen, if you’re butting heads with your mentor more often than not, then it may be better if you go your separate ways. We don’t always work well with people we don’t get along with, but mentorship has different expectations of support. Be as honest as possible about your differences, and if you can’t resolve them, be open and honest about needing to move on.

Should I pay my mentor?

There’s usually no expectation of payment for mentorship, though that’s not to say you shouldn’t offer some form of compensation as a show of appreciation.

Does USD MITE have a mentorship program?

Our faculty are more than educators — they’re great mentors who’ve worked with students and entrepreneurs across dozens of private and public organizations. Should you attend the MITE program you’re likely to form relationships that will serve you for the rest of your life. USD also offers community support through our Student Services & Support Team to ensure your success both on and off campus.