A Day in the Life: Accelerator Mentors
By James Hendren
Chairman of the Board
The Venture Center
A Day in the Life: Accelerator Mentors
ICBA ThinkTECH Accelerator 2.0 Blog Series Q&A
1. You’ve been a mentor with The Venture Center for a long time and have been through several accelerators at this point. The quality of The Venture Center Mentors is a major part of why the accelerators are successful. What does a great mentor provide in the day to day of a founder in an accelerator program?
A great mentor is someone who can listen to a mentee and help determine where they or their company is weak. Great mentors ask questions and assign outside work to get the mentee to “discover” the answer to their needs. There is a lot more buy-in to a discovered solution than just being told an answer. Occasionally, a mentor has to advise a mentee to look into a noticed problem. If this doesn’t solve the issue and the mentee doesn’t understand or doesn’t respond adequately, as a last resort a mentor may state their disagreement. and suggest the mentee continue to study the problem. I like to ask a question of them that gives a hint at where I want them to go to research their problem/solution.
Mentors must maintain an “arms-length” relationship. Mentors are NOT part of the company team, and they are not merely a friend. While friendship may form along the way, the mentor/mentee relationship mustn’t start that way.
Great mentors must also recognize that there are times when they may not be the right mentor to address specific mentee needs. If that happens, it’s important to refer the mentee back to The Venture Center so the right match may be made to help the mentee. There are so many mentors at The Venture Center, with a great diversity of backgrounds and areas of expertise. There’s a mentor for just about any need a mentee could imagine.
2. What is an average day like for you when the accelerator is in high gear?
Typically, there will be a presentation from a selected expert in some area, some outside visitors, and then a couple of one-on-one mentoring sessions. Usually, in an accelerator, the individual sessions are relative to some issue the company has specifically asked for help with. Those sessions will be exploring the issue, looking at possible solutions, and heading them towards a solution. Sometimes the solution is a referral to someone while others the solution is answering a direct question, like, “What are some possible ways to raising capital?” I am often asked to review plans or strategies.
3. What has been your most memorable experience as a mentor?
The most memorable experiences are when the mentee sees the answer and gets really excited about going to execute what we have discovered together. That lightbulb moment, that brings major change in go-to-market, or fundraising, or pivoting their market – that’s what the fun is all about. I remember one company about to give a third of their company away to a developer for whom they were paying. After a strong reaction, and after talking through it, they made adjustments and saved significant dilution to themselves and their early investors. They still went to market with a great product. Those are proud times.
4. In what ways do you learn from the founders who come through the program?
Every founder has unique ideas and experiences. I always learn from any mentoring session, whether it is about their niche in the market, a better way to sell, or a better way to manage. Mentoring is a two-way street. We both learn!
5. Did you have a mentor, and if so, how does that inform how you mentor others?
I have numerous mentors. I always learn from anyone I work with. There have been some great people who have helped me learn how to manage better, how to market better, and just the little tricks here and there that can really make a business take off.
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