An entrepreneur’s guide to finding the right mentor in India

Seeking guidance.
Seeking guidance.
Image: REUTERS/Sivaram V
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Inspired by the Trillion Dollar Coach, a book on the leadership lessons of the legendary Silicon Valley business coach Bill Campbell, I recently set about asking Indian entrepreneurs about their own experience with mentors, and advisors.

India’s startup universe has many successful mentoring relationships. Lenskart’s Peyush Bansal was famously counselled by Ratan Tata, while Harvard Business School professor Tarun Khanna shaped the business vision of InMobi’s Naveen Tewari.

Here are my personal learnings based on interactions with founders and mentors of early-stage startups.

First off, the words advisor, coach, mentor, and sponsor are not interchangeable as stated by angel investor and veteran marketer Lloyd Mathias.

  • An advisor is someone a startup founder would go to for specific issues like scaling or preparing for a large funding round. They are subject-matter experts, and their role with the startup is contractual.
  • A coach is a personal guide for leaders and managers and helps them with short- or long-term goals like hiring leadership teams or achieving certain business objectives. Campbell was a coach to the likes of Apple’s Steve Jobs. Trillion Dollar Coach was jointly penned by Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Alan Eagle, all Google leaders whom he guided.
  • A mentor, or guide, is even more personal. Her role is part strategic, part behavioural. For instance, if a founder is hiring a clone of herself, the mentor would interview the candidate to avoid possible pitfalls. This is a long-term role.
  • A sponsor is a senior executive with power and influence, who believes in your skill and talent and helps advance your career.

A startup founder’s journey with a mentor or coach takes off when she introspects on what to achieve.

“The problem today is not the lack of mentors, but founders must figure out what they need help with,” says Utkarsh Amitabh, founder of Network Capital, a community of over 50,000 mentors from 104 countries providing personalised mentoring and career guidance to students and young professionals.

The right mentor

Tabish Sangrar, a founder and mentor to early-stage startups offers a three-point guide. “The right mentor is someone a) who has navigated the same problems that the startup is trying to solve b) undertaken the same journey that the startup wants to take, and c) with a deep understanding of the domain the startup is in and can provide a profound perspective shift and effect directional changes.”

A mentor raises the intellectual discourse of the founding team, provided it is well prepared with questions and the realisation of what exactly it seeks from the mentor, adds Sangrar.

Venture capital firm First Round studied 100 mentor-mentee relationships and listed the following questions for mentees to ask themselves:

  • Does the potential mentor remember key details about me?
  • Will it be hard to explain the concepts and contexts of my job?
  • Can this person give me actionable advice?
  • Does this person seem focused?

What founders seek in a mentor

According to the American Psychology Association, a successful mentor is a role model and guide. They listen, offer support, and challenge their mentees. They also know how to say “no.”

 “As a first-generation entrepreneur, it is important to me that my mentor is someone who has gotten his hands dirty. Another trait is the ability to be upfront and transparent. There are certain things that did not work for me, and I should have no hesitation in discussing them with my mentor. I expect my mentor to stop me from making mistakes,” says Mala Mary Martina, CEO and founder of I Love Mondays, a Bengaluru-based startup that helps teens and adults find careers they love.

After raising their pre-series A funding round, founders at StyleDotMe, a Mumbai-based startup transforming retail through augmented reality, were given an ambitious target. Their mentor, a prominent angel investor, helped them develop their OKRs (objectives, key results) and a plan to achieve results over a weekend marathon meeting lasting 15 hours a day.

StyleDotMe’s co-founder and CTO Akhil Tolani shares his experience: “Mentors should be transparent and pragmatic. If a founder cannot be transparent with the mentor, she cannot provide value.”

A mentor’s other roles

Can a mentor also don other hats, like that of an investor or an independent advisor?

“Mentor, investor, and independent advisor are three distinct roles. A mentor may choose to become an investor, or independent advisor or both, based on the merit of the startup,” says Sangrar.

Martina of I Love Mondays, though, says multiple roles are incompatible in some cases. “I am not comfortable with my mentor being my investor. A mentor-mentee relationship is extremely personal and anything else would be awkward.” However, “an investor who is also an advisor is a great equation,” she adds.

Should a mentor be paid?

The jury is out on the question of remuneration. “The best mentor I had, advised against paying for mentorship. That said, if a mentor provides value that monetarily benefits a startup, sharing a part of it is great,” says Tolani.

Others say relying on big-hearted mentors, who counsel for free, has its drawbacks. Payment makes both parties accountable and it should be outcome-based, according to Martina.

Mentors are in it for more than the paycheque, though. “A monetary angle helps cement the relationship, but the number one aspect I look for is trust,” says Mathias. He suggests creating a full-fledged platform that formalises the unique mentor-mentee relationship.