Startup Mentorship in India. Broken or Not?

Thursday February 28, 2013,

6 min Read

Mentor final

Mentoring means different things to different people.

It can be time-bound, or about quality advice, or just a lot of gyaan.

Done right, it can make a huge difference to an entrepreneur’s success story. Many entrepreneurs in India cite finding good mentors as a key challenge, after of course, fund raising and hiring.

What is mentorship?

Mentorship in lay terms is defined as someone knowledgeable in a field guiding a novice in understanding the domain and getting effective with solutions.

Mentors help entrepreneurs avoid mistakes and wasting time reinventing the wheel. Some mentors bring in a different perspective to the problem at hand, and suggest creative ways to solve problems.

Identifying a good mentor

Vijay Anand, mentor at and founder at The Startup Centre in Chennai, agrees that on the face of it, mentorship seems to be like a huge issue but on further contemplation you’d figure that a well formed entrepreneur (someone who knows what he is doing) doesn’t feel the lack of any support. Classifying the population, there is a small segment of ‘in-the-groove’ entrepreneurs for whom the drill seems to be not so hard and there is the larger chunk who have to slog it out.

Identifying a good mentor is very important (as Fred Wilson emphasizes in this post). Kulin Shah, who is an investor turned entrepreneur, believes that you can’t just pick someone as a mentor on the basis of a LinkedIn profile. “One needs to know the person well and respect his feedback, opinions to consider him or her as a mentor,” says Kulin. One needs to understand the mentor and not just go via tall claims, Arvind Nigam, founder @bubbles says, “We primarily look at karma. We try to strip out self-selling anointments and get to the core of the incoming individual and see if that person can align and understand our business challenges and goals, and what value he/she adds into our company.”

Anand Lunia, founder of India Quotient (an Angel Fund) and Sameer Guglani, the co-founder of The Morpheus (An accelerator with 70+ companies in its portfolio) shared some thoughts on the subject.

Watch out for these mentor-types

Not all mentors are equal. While many mentors propel a startup forward, there are some whose contributions are often dubious.

Anand classifies mentors as per their objectives, perhaps a tad cynically as:

The consultants: They are domain specialists, and bring some specific value to the table. While they want some stock, they usually ask for a decent monthly cash too. Not a harmful breed, as long as the deliverables are clear.

Mentors from 'networks': Harmless usually again, but not very helpful either. Their job is to encourage entrepreneurship, and are good for a pep talk.

Co-founding mentors: There are mentors who want to join a good startup- they start by mentoring, but gradually steer the conversation towards a 25% stake for 2 days a week of work. The catch- its never 7 days a week commitment from these guys.

Middlemen: They are the dangerous ‘I know a lot of VCs, so give me 5 % in your company to help you meet them’ people. Stay clear, even if you are very desperate. VCs hate these middlemen. These guys usually plonked a few million dollars of some VCs, and somehow can’t find anything else to do. They talk very big, and have a great PR, so they might attract you like a magnet.

Angels: Will put some money at low valuation, and do some or all of the above. Depending on what they offer, you still see if they are just one of the above, with a small cheque.

Apart from these, there are some very good angels Anand believes and they can be found out by looking at their portfolios and talking to these companies.

Be clear of the hype

Sameer believes mentorship to be “highly over-rated” and it is the new buzz word that is being misused to lead founders to latch on to whatever that can bring them quick wins. He believes that there are many in the current startup system, who wear the “I am a mentor” tag but 99% of them do not have any startup experience (more on Sameer’s post).

Sameer shares their personal experience with their company MadHouse media wherein they had 6 mentors on board each with a 0.5% stake but no one was ever helpful. Anand also supports his claim with an experience with one of his portfolio companies - a guy acted like a mentor, promised help to the entrepreneur, placed a rather large order for a custom product via his own company. Since he was a respected ‘mentor’ in the market, no advance was taken. The payment never came, the mentor pocketed the payment from the end customer, and issued threats verbally.

All’s not bleak

The above instances may serve as caveats while looking for a mentor but it’s not all gloomy. There are many (Top 10 Indian role models in the Indian startup scene) qualified people who can guide you on the right track and act as the much needed light house.

But in many cases, it’s important to quantify your relationship. For instance, Sanjay Prasad runs MindSphere Consulting, a mentorship firm and does not deals in shades of grey- he works with a simple mandate to help the startup make more money. Having the experience of successfully running and selling of ventures like MindRiver Technologies, he charges a retainership and also takes an equity but the deliverables are decided on both sides.

This kind of an arrangement obviously doesn’t work in every case but here are some broad tips that might help:

5 tips on choosing mentors

Based on our discussions, here are some tips on choosing mentors wisely:

  • Talk to the mentor’s portfolio companies (just like you’d when looking for investment)
  • Many would believe that he or she should have had previous startup experience but that depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for guidance with respect to product development, an experienced techie would do it for you.
  • Network a lot. Not just because you’d meet more people but you’d also know how to filter.
  • Make sure the frequency matches. You should admire the person and should be comfortable enough to go out for a drink on a Friday night.
  • During your discussions, try to clarify what the exact deliverables will be, and structure their stake or payment around that. Good mentors would see a win-win and be willing to work with quantifiable parameters.

To sum it up, there's no dearth of mentors as such but an entrepreneur, especially the early stage one needs to be perspicacious enough to make the right decisions and not just have mentors for the sake of it. Derive value.

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