A successful entrepreneur is an outstanding individual who passionately drums up resources and creativity, to unearth new market opportunities. But the ecosystem -- consisiting of many players, ranging from the government to universities -- plays an important role in fostering entrepreneurship. But my interest has been in accelerators, incubators, and mentors.
Over the past two decades, I have participated in innumerable initiatives taken by accelerators and incubators in India. And I have angel invested in and/or mentored dozens of startups. I truly believe that entrepreneurship is the engine of our economy, and needs to be facilitated as much as possible. And while the excitement of creating new ventures gets me out of the bed in the morning, there is a ghastly fear that keeps me awake at night.
The idea of accelerators, incubators, and mentors is great in principle, but it largely doesn't seem to be working!
Without begging the issue of how one defines 'success', I feel that the success rate of startups coming out of incubators and accelerators is lower than the already abysmal rate of startup success in general.
And this is distressing.
Given that most of what I do revolve around working with founders, it is embarrassing, nay, humiliating to acknowledge that the seemingly great idea of business accelerators/incubators is not yielding fruit. Here are some scary facts in India:
Our ecosystem has several altruistic mentors. They genuinely want to help founders. But in the absence of a structured arrangement or deliverable, their relationship with their mentees tends to either remain superficial or short-lived.
Often, mentors turn to mentoring for all the wrong reasons. I have seen mentors try to prospect their mentees, and convert them to paying customers. Others merely want to include the word "mentor" in their resume. Not much can be expected from such mentors.
When founders face obstacles, they seek inputs from mentors. But given the broad spectrum of these obstacles, mentors rarely possess the expertise necessary to spit out solutions. The most helpful responses would actually be: "I don't know," or "let me find out more about this before I respond," or "I know someone that could help you with this," or "here is some more information I need from you before I am able to start thinking about my response," or "I cannot help you decide, but here are some of the factors you should consider."
Instead, I find mentors feeling compelled (and confident) in responding to every query that the founder poses. This superhero-mentor who can solve everything is usually the least valuable, but, unfortunately, it takes time before their hollowness becomes obvious.
I am saddest when capable and sincere mentors engage with capable and sincere founders, yet no value is created. A founder meets the mentor, who gives outstanding counsel. And that is where it ends. The founder gets busy with her daily operations. And the mentor doesn't think it is her place to follow up with the founder. It is important to complete the feedback loop.
Accelerators and incubators should keep the mentoring relationship on track. But in most cases, the mentors are invitees who are doing a favor to the accelerator/incubator and hence cannot be held accountable.
After being disillusioned by jibber-jabber mentor-speak, many founders develop the attitude that the only kind of mentor who has any value is the one who can help them fundraise. And the glorious edifice of 'mentor utopia' comes crumbling down.
Having been an entrepreneur twice, and angel investor/mentor dozens of times, I suffer from the belief that problems can be solved; even if the odds are stacked up against me.
I think that the rampant failure of accelerators/incubators/mentors can be solved. But that would require us to relook at what we are expecting from these arrangements. I am sure that what I am proposing below is just one of the many approaches, and you might have another way to look at things. My recommendations stem from my limited experience as a mentor to several startups in a formal/informal capacity. Also, I have engaged with many incubators/accelerators and have developed my belief about what seems to be working, and what isn't.
Provide a platform for founders to choose a few mentors from a pool of several. Likewise, support the mentoring engagement only where the mentor too has chosen to work with the specific startup. The idea of, "here is our mentor panel and all of them will help all our startups," is likely to end up in slogans, clichés, and superficial engagement.
Align economic interest among all participants. This is desirable to maintain long-term sustainability of mentoring arrangements. This is better than hoping that one is lucky in stumbling across altruistic mentors who would manage to sustain their enthusiasm in long-term mentoring of a specific startup. Of course, economic alignment is not the panacea here, and far more curation is required in selecting mentors.
No amount of design and strategy is going to create great accelerators/incubators/mentors if the intent is insincere.
This article is only a starting point. My thinking has evolved over the years, and I am sure that it will continue to evolve. I am certainly no guru in this space, but will happily share my thoughts with you on matters where I do have a view. So, feel free to share your comments and queries below.
Some disclaimers: I am not saying that all accelerators/incubators/mentors are failures. I am sure there are success stories. In fact, I hope that some of my mentees believe that I have made a valuable contribution. Painting accelerators and incubators and mentors with the same broad brush can lead to some ambiguity.
There are, literally, over 50 incubators/accelerators I have engaged with. So any attempt to map my comments on to any one specific organization is neither appropriate nor valuable.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)
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