Tag Archives: mentors

The fallacy of providing “great mentorship” in 1 hour chunks

I have a good friend who has been a successful corporate executive for over 15 years. Off the charts smart and with a keen sense for the “inner issues” driving other people, he is able to figure out the root cause of most problems faster than most people I know.

He does though have a lack of time, like most other people. Having been in a large company for most of his career, he wished to live vicariously through other people and was keen to “mentor” young entrepreneurs. My advice to him was to focus on helping younger people in his company rather than entrepreneurs. He seemed to think about my tip, but chose to ignore it.

He setup 1 hour mentoring sessions with 3 entrepreneurs who he felt were working on problems that he was keen to understand more about and wanted to help them while he learned more about the market they were targeting.

Each session was fairly standard and given his corporate background, were scheduled a month in advance with consistency and a sense of purpose.

After 2 sessions, 2 entrepreneurs said they were busy and could not make the call or be in person.

He did feel he brought value to them in both the sessions and heard from the entrepreneurs that his advice was valuable. While he was in the process of scheduling the follow up, one entrepreneur told him rather bluntly that he did not have the time.

My friend took it rather well, and wanted to understand how he could make the time more valuable. Both entrepreneurs said the same thing.

There were pieces of advice that they could get from my friend, but they did not have the time to execute on his suggestions and felt that while well meaning, most of the suggestions were not precise enough.

Note that they did not say that the suggestions were not actionable enough. They said that the recommendations were not precise.

I get nearly 2 executives and mid-career professionals from larger companies and older entrepreneurs wanting to be a mentor at the Microsoft Accelerator each week.

Most we reject.

Some because they just want to add the mentor title to their LinkedIn profile and dont have enough time to provide.

Most others because they want to compress the “mentorship” in chunks of 1 hour sessions every month.

Its hard to do anything well in 1 hour chunks in infrequent periods of time. Even if its frequent the context is fairly limited.

Its even harder to provide any value in a 1 hour mentorship session.

Which is the prime reason I am not taking any new “meetings” to provide feedback and advice to new entrepreneurs who are not in our accelerator.

There’s very limited to little value that the session can actually provide is my experience.

I might feel good about it, so might the entrepreneur for about 15 minutes after the meeting. When the dust settles, though, after a day or two, they realize the multiple edge cases and scenarios that my advice or suggestions wont really work.

If you think you can provide value in 1 hour chunks as a “mentor” I’d love to hear how you are doing it and how you measure the value of your advice.

How can a hacker ask for startup advice so they get the most value?

The last few weeks I had the opportunity to talk and chat with several (engineer) entrepreneurs who were in various stages of their company. While most entrepreneurs are fairly clear and specific on the problems they are facing, a few are unable to clearly articulate where they could use help or advice. There are several “categories” of ¬†questions and issues that an entrepreneur has. Some questions are procedural – “how do I do this”, others are “introduction”, still others are “transaction-al”.

The most difficult ones for both parties are the “What should I do?”.

Any mentor / advisor will not have enough context (regardless of how much time they spend with your company) to help you by giving the “right answer”.

For these class of questions there is really no right answer.

The right answer does not exist because it comes down to what the entrepreneur wants to do. What she is comfortable with, what her biases are and what her motivation is.

The only thing a good advisor can do is to provide a “framework” for your question.

The only other thing an advisor can do is to give the entrepreneur confidence in herself so she can best utilize the framework to her benefit.

A simple way to think about the “framework” is a set /series of “if-then-else” statements, with <then> and <else> colored with the advisor’s experiences.

E.g. When faced with this issue like <a>, I responded with <b>, but the alternative is <c>.

So, if <you believe “a” is true> and <you also think “b” will happen> then <you should do “c”> else <the other thing you can do is “d”>

The framework is not just one if-then-else. Its a series of them.

Can it be that simplistic you ask?

Yes. That’s it.

The best advisors / mentors listen and ask a lot of questions, with each answer leading to more questions. The questions are to help the entrepreneur think, not for the advisor to assess.

So the next time, as a hacker you are looking for some advice on a question “What do I do?”, then remember to keep a note of the conditional construct.

P.S. For those that know me as a hard-core sales guy and nothing else, I did study DES based cryptography algorithms under Dr. Sherman, who I am sure is absolutely disappointed that I ended up a sales guy in a tech company.