Does anybody here know of any recommendable material on how to start and run the mentoring program in an accelerator. Operators of CoFoundersLab Accelerator should feel free to contribute as well.
FYI, the CFL staff rarely read/respond to content in the Discuss area here. But the answer to your question is one of those "it depends" answers. What do you want your mentoring program to accomplish? What is the purpose of your accelerator? How is your accelerator different from others? What are the investors who fund your accelerator expecting to gain from accepted participants? The mentoring program must fit your mission/goals for participants (where you're trying to take them by the time they leave), and likewise what you offer to candidates will groom the kind of applications you receive to participate in your accelerator.
Is your accelerator up and running? There are fewer than 35 accelerators running right now, compared to over 200 incubators. Most accelerators have a specific approach, because they're investing in the candidates they accept. So your mentoring program is a key part of that development assistance you've created to support the companies that are operating within your accelerator.
Can you describe more of your goals so recommendations on what steps to take would be more focused? I could talk about mentoring programs in general, but don't think that would be nearly as helpful.
Andrew, this is a great question and post and one I wish more universities and incubators would invest time into. The reason they do not is most universities and incubators are nothing more than money making businesses with little passion or genuine interest in the success of their students or occupants. I could write a book on this. It is a complex yet simple (though tedious and time consuming) process at the same time. Complex in that so much of entrepreneurship is organic and varied, but simple in the basic elements of entrepreneurship are the same in all industries. Database tracking is a huge first step. I once made a diagram for all the contacts and colleagues I was utilizing for a project (think family tree style). I literally had hundreds of connector points, and from that I could evaluate possible synergies.
The same applies with a mentoring program. You have to first know what the people are trying to accomplish. I taught for a brief stint until the myopia of the department was just too much to stomach. But the very first question I asked the chair when they hired me was “What do your students want to do?” His answer was “Gosh we have 1300 students…I have no idea.” Lazy…because that is 1300 connector points for synergy. On that note, an exercise I would have my students perform was to create a list of 4 mentors they would like to have….From what they viewed as “very easy to attain” all the way to “Impossible.” Now most were hesitant to list the unattainable mentor. With every one of my students I found them connections. So for example, one student, who wanted to start a clothing line, wanted Sean P-Diddy due to Sean Jean. This was his unattainable mentor..and when he said it, he sunk in his chair and kinda laughed, as if to pre-empt laughter. The class snickered and he laughed. I smiled and I said, “So why do you all think that is funny? Because hes worth half a billion…a celebrity?” The student said “Cause…hes P-Diddy…I mean..” And I would guide and mold their thinking away from the pessimistic myopia. I said, “So you could have been timid with listing him, and you would have missed the opportunity that exists because I know his agent, and what you feared was impossible only had two people in between you and a phone call in reality. Yet if you think its crazy or impossible, it will guaranteed never happen.” The laughter turned to sitting upright and taking notes and a realization that it was possible.
That answer is two fold…have to evaluate connector points, but you have to have mentors who have had enough success and do not possess insecurity…that way they can encourage top tier knowledge and avenues for success. And that applies to all the basic needs of an entrepreneur...legal, finance, accounting, marketing etc....the icing are connections to the deal makers...the Forbes 400 guys who can put them in front of their marketing team and get them access to massive distribution channels.
With all of that though, an active database to create synergy is a HUGE part of being a successful mentor, and hence creating a successful program. So organization…big one. So the first step…in my opinion organize a system to evaluate and track interests and create a powerful web of connectivity. In so doing energies will arise that likely would have been overlooked. That would be the first process I would do if handed the opportunity to create the “mother of all mentor programs.” Without selfless ambition, vision, and passion, you just have another real estate deal incubator. Might as well be renting out apartments…at least then you have character as opposed to selling false dreams to would be entrepreneurs who think paying $500 a month to have access to a cubicle and free coffee will lead this to entrepreneurial success.
Andrew, What Paul is suggesting is in fact an answer to your question. What he is essentially suggesting is writing a business plan for your program, or at the very least asking some of the detailed questions that are answered in competent plans. I am 110% for business plans as living breathing documents that evolve. I can't even keep track of the number of entrepreneurs I have corresponded with who fail to construct a proper business plan/road map and then act shocked when they have no plan for obstacles, or they face impending failure. Its like saying you want to travel from Texas to NYC by car...with no gps, not even an old school physical map. So you can say you want to create the mother of mentor programs in an accelerator (drive to NYC) but without defining what that will look like you will likely get lost. And there are dozens upon dozens of questions in addition to Paul's that one should work through and answer.
And again, that is what I see most, unfortunately, with all programs entrepreneurial be they mentorships, incubators, accelerators, or university programs. I don't know of any incubators that have the scheme of "Pay for office space and "free" coffee and snacks and the community dog who makes us look hip and cool on our website" producing any results. In fact, my first thought always goes back to "scam." They are more social "gym hangout" than truly focused. However, not every one can get set up in a building owned by an oil wildcatter housing a dozen or two startups in his building. So I understand the appeal.
While I do not agree with Paul’s boxing in of skills and only mastering this or that, because I just don’t follow that rigid and myopic of an approach to business, having structure and analyzing in detail the needs and goals and purpose of the mentor's role to the overall project is extremely important. And I do think too many entrepreneurs/incubators go about it loosey goosey with throwing stuff at a wall and hoping it sticks. Certainly you can get too rigid. But combining a more rigid operations management schematic to the process with tolerance for the organic and evolving will lead to far better results. And almost NO one does that.
To answer your question of what I would want mentors to do actually plays into mine and Paul’s discussion.
If you do not have structure and a road map, your question, in being direct, holds no value. What I would need them to do might be totally different than what someone else might need them to do. You wont know that until you go back with a detailed approach and figure out the purpose of your incubator, accelerator…mentorship AND who what and where the current portfolio of startups are at. The needs in that business plan will be even more organic as your expand start up industries. So me personally. I can get any CEO in the world to pay attention to me. I have done it time and time again. And I can create strategy for businesses most people cant even dream about, and create a synergy that is 5 connected points down the line. I understand pressure and passion points and can find them with anyone. But what I do not enjoy is the schmooze, and I don’t do it…can’t..not in my DNA. I don’t get impressed by people with a few million in the bank because I have dealt with people with billions in the bank. I also don’t particularly enjoy follow up with investors amidst private jet rides and yacht trips to their private island. And yet I find myself usually having to pull that load of work because most cant open those doors at that level. Even though I am far more advanced in my business experience than most, and while Im looking more for partners..than mentors…I personally would be open to a partner/mentor who loves that side of gaining large investments. I’m fine with the aspect of bringing in $20M or $50M sr. debt or matching funds…not the $5..10..20M cash equity deal done because guys play the same country club. So for me at my stage, and at this point, I want to go into a company that has 5-10M in yearly revenue and show them how to turn it into $50M or $500M a year and wield the relationships and strategies to make that happen. Again, Im only approaching deals as an equal partner because of what I can bring to the table. But looking back 15 years if I were to go into an incubator, I would want a sound connected group of mentors in finance, private equity/VC, legal. I have never found someone who can create more strategy than me (though I would love to)…and I realize that is a huge challenge for most entrepreneurs. So a “dot connector” as a mentor is an absolute necessity as much as a mentor in the core fundamental elements of entrepreneurship. But again, if the incubator/accelerator is too lazy to put in the time to track and map out progress....it should close doors and stop trying to sell get rich dreams. Too many of those popping up like weeds around the country and they give entrepreneurship a bad name and a diluted reality.My 2 Cents.
@Paul Garcia: Not quite the question I asked. Let me rephrase it.
You take a job with an accelerator tomorrow and your first job is to set up "the Mother of all Mentoring Programs". What would it do and how would you structure it?
By the way, if you are talking about Tech Fort Worth, my answer most definitely applies. I have met with them. They need to do this which is in part what I alluded to. Ft. Worth's entrepreneurship leaders need to do this as well. Not the best location either in between a railroad and a freeway in a re-furbished school building, to make an impression with global innovators. I know Park and Rec buildings that are state of the art and more inviting. Image speaks volumes.
@ Andrew Chalk but it is still the answer to the second question you asked. Without the information on why the accelerator exists, who benefits in what way, there's no possible way to construct a mentoring program that's relevant. Mentoring isn't simply about smart people being available to less smart people. A mentor is intended to shape their protege in a particular way, something that has to do both with the type of recipient, and the type of expert.
Most (not all) mentors are not hot-swappable. There's something unique about each. They have a particular point-of-view, set of experiences, and areas of expertise.
Let's look at it more simply. There are six fundamental business skills every enterprise will need to handle in order to succeed. No single individual ever masters more than two. So, you will always need multiple mentors (3-6) to cover each of the six areas. That's just a basic premise. Then you need to understand what amount of time the mentors have available to share with the participants. How many people at once can they mentor? What is motivating the mentor to give advice and listen to questions? Quickly you can see that the number of mentors you need to be available increases, unless criteria to enter the accelerator program requires candidates to have already mastered some of the six areas, covered by their own employees.
Since accelerators typically only accept companies that are already in business for a while, have a product, and are making sales, you do know exactly what state you want those companies to be in so that you can accelerate some part of their growth. So, the same question applies...what is the purpose of the accelerator? If your program is only designed to help people fix/improve operational systems, then you may only need mentors that work on organization and efficiency skills, not marketing, sales, leadership, or people skills. (Those are the six.)
If the accelerator is already up and running and has participants, then your job is to address the unmet mentoring needs that have been revealed. If the accelerator is not yet up and running and has no participants, than your job is to define what the capabilities of mentors will need to be based on the narrow purpose the accelerator intends to serve.
I don't think the first scenario exists, or at least I hope it doesn't, because I wouldn't want to be a candidate without the mentoring program already established. That'd be an accelerator that was really just an incubator, and it would set me up as a participant to flounder with the money the accelerator was putting into my business, making them just another uninvolved investment source.
I hope that we're not tripping over terms here. I only keep a side-eye on the incubator/accelerator industry as its own thing. But I do take on individual mentor/advisor roles with young-ish established companies looking to make their next leap in growth.
There are common diagnostics that a mentor should have in their arsenal. One of the most important is being able to assess what it is that the recipient of advice actually needs. And while the mentor might have mastered the skill the advisee needs to improve, it's more likely they're not a match from the start, and the mentor needs to be able to pass them to the right kind of expert within your collection of mentors. A mentor that's great with marketing and organization is not going to be adequately advise a company that needs leadership and efficiency help. They may be able to identify the issues needing work, even improve things a little, but in terms of an accelerator, you want results fast, so need a different expert.
If your accelerator program only accepts candidates who have growth problems due to the same two fundamental business skills, then you can narrow the requirements of your collection of mentors to focus on those two areas.
So, I'll repeat myself a little and say that it's impossible to structure a mentoring program until you understand the scope of what the accelerator will do for participants. If you're going to provide support for all six skills, the structure is going to be quite different and the process is going to be different than if you have already screened participants for what type of help they will need before they enter the accelerator program. Even on the most basic level, the broad help model is going to have a lot more steps including things like making the assessment, prioritizing the skill-building, and handing off or collaborating with other mentors when dependencies are revealed. The narrow skill model is much easier to manage logistically as well as resource-wise.
There's a lot of chatter about what does and doesn't work with the mentoring programs in specific other accelerators. I'm sure you can read commentary too and interpret what's good or problematic about the models in existence. Use it. But as far as creating the "mother of all mentorship programs," that's a dream without any practical boundaries. My first task taking such a job would be to confine the ask to a specific set of narrow goals that are meaningful in regard to the way the accelerator intends to operate.
What would you want the mentors to do, regarding each other?