Choosing Mentors for Your Startup Accelerators

Select Mentors for Your Startup

Selecting the right applicants is only half the story when it comes to building a corporate accelerator. Top accelerators thrive at the intersection of promising startups and thoughtful mentors. These two groups act as the fuel to create invaluable networks and interactions that lead to a successful and enduring accelerator.

Mentorship is ubiquitous among corporate accelerators, and it works. At their best, mentors can provide startups with advice and access to networks and funding. Having top-performing entrepreneurs as mentors gives a startup an advantage.

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Moreover, there’s evidence from GALI that multiple mentors are desirable. More mentors help startups separate ideas shared by successful entrepreneurs from thoughts that may be rooted in personal eccentricities. In fact, parsing the advice and input from mentors within a restricted timeframe and making decisions is one of the most complex and demanding tasks that accelerator teams will face.

Susan L. Cohen noted that involving more mentors can result in conflicting advice but consulting with multiple mentors within a short period can help founders identify commonalities in the conflicting feedback.

Brad Feld noted that information management is a vital part of the learning process. According to Feld, “If you don’t build your own muscle around collecting, synthesizing, dealing with, and deciding what to do with all the data that is coming at you, then you are going to have massive problems as your company scales up.”

Cohen suggests that accelerators schedule meetings for founders, which gives the founders a wider pool of mentors. It’s also likely to result in a more diverse set of mentors than the startups are likely to assemble themselves.

Predictably, not all experts see mentor overload as a good thing. Fred Wilson, an investor, believes that too much mentor feedback creates confusion, wastes time and energy, and even results in loss of confidence. Also, the quality of mentors is bound to have an effect.

Rhett Morris is the director of Endeavor Insight, the analytics and research arm of Endeavor Global. His take is that mentors who had already achieved success in the tech industry were able to help younger tech startups outperform their peers by a factor of three. The benefits from lower quality mentors were much lower. Ravi Belani of Alchemist Accelerator went a bit further at the 2015 Wolves Summit in Poland saying that a subpar mentor can actually do harm to a startup by consuming valuable time.

  1. So where do mentors come from, and how do you separate the wheat from the chaff? Here’s how to select the right mentor.

One method of mentor recruitment is more of a matchmaking process between startups and mentors. In a 2011 report, “Nurturing Innovation: Venture Acceleration Networks,” the World Bank suggests that mentors and entrepreneurs select each other. The idea is that the relationship becomes sticky and long-lasting for a period beyond the scope of the accelerator, creating a stronger entrepreneurship network.

The World Bank report also reviewed the methods used by leading accelerators for mentorship recruitment. Here are some of the methods.

  1. MIT’s Venture Mentorship Service: Mentor recruitment is based on referrals. MIT VMS mentors said their main motivations to join were the following
  • Exposure to interesting MIT start-ups
  • The opportunity to educate younger generations
  • Connecting with talented people as peer mentors
  1. Techstars: The selection process at this accelerator is informal and based on referrals. The managing directors typically know the mentor candidate directly, or they’re referred to them by a trusted source in their social network. Beyond that, the typical recruitment process is described as follows:
  • A short discussion with the mentor and due diligence.
  • Mentors are selected for their extensive entrepreneurial experience. Academic credentials do not play an important role in the selection of mentors.
  • Mentors looking to develop relationships with companies in view of selling their services are not accepted.
  • Mentors are attracted by the high quality of the Techstars startups and of some of the other mentors serving in the program.

Once a company has identified suitable mentors, how is their knowledge best applied? According to venture capitalist and mentor Christopher Quek, there are three areas where mentors are most valuable.

  • As domain specialists, such as mentors with experience in specific areas such as finance, education, energy, or health (for digital health technology).
  • As skill specialists, for example, mentors who can teach and coach in specific skills such as UI/UX, sales, legal, business, or design.
  • As connectors or networkers, for example, mentors who are willing to expand and share their network.

An interesting insight from the GALI study is that accelerator program alumni may not be the best mentors. Moreover, including potential customers as mentors is a good idea, which makes sense given that the consumer is the ultimate judge of any concept or innovation.

  1. External Resources: Corporate Accelerator Mentorship

Recruiting qualified people is only a part of creating a solid mentorship program. Even the highest quality candidates need to be trained in mentorship best practices. The following resources provide insight into successful mentorship models, with a focus on mentoring startups:

  • The Mentor Manifesto: The original “Mentor Manifesto,” created by David Cohen with the help of Jon Bradford and Brad Feld, outlines a set of principles supported by years of accelerator work and thousands of mentor interactions.
  • Deconstructing the Mentor Manifesto: Brad Feld goes in depth through each component of the manifesto. This series is broken up into 18 promised posts, 16 of which are live.
  • MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service: MIT has created a unique model to coach early stage startups. The VMS has trained over 66 organizations from 18 countries on its mentorship model.
  1. Advantages to Corporate Accelerators

Corporate accelerators exist at the sweet spot among a number of variables: risk level, capital investment, access to the external ecosystem, and engagement level. This positioning offers a wide variety of incentives for corporations.

  • Access to talent: Startups can provide a source of high-quality talent for the host corporation. Through an accelerator program, a corporation can observe startup teams and, upon completion of the cycle, potentially bring team members on board, either through an acquisition or by targeting specific team members.
  • Proximity to emerging technology and trends: Startups occur naturally at the cutting edge of technology. By immersing themselves in the startup ecosystem, corporations gain insights into new technologies and business models (among other things) that can be applied to other business segments.
  • Open-source R&D: Corporate accelerators provide a venue for multiple industry-specific experiments. Corporations can observe how new ideas succeed or fail without having to deal with the costs or logistical hurdles associated with traditional R&D.
  • Financial returns: If the corporation chooses an equity stake in a participating startup, the corporation may experience financial gains if the startup grows rapidly or is acquired. (Deloitte)
  • Innovative culture: When a corporation is engaged with the startup ecosystem, the entrepreneurial mindset rubs off on the company’s culture. Internal employees have the opportunity to become mentors, attend seminars, and interact with the startups. These new ideas help spur innovation throughout the company.
  • New partnerships: The creation of a corporate accelerator sends a signal that a corporation is committed to engaging in the external innovation system. Other corporations within the industry often seek guidance or partnerships with corporate acceleration leaders. 
  1. Choose the Design

Not all corporate accelerators are the same. According to Yael Hochberg in “Innovation Policy and The Economy,” there are five main variations of the corporate accelerator.

  • Corporate involvement in existing accelerators: Corporations and their executives join existing accelerators as mentors or investors.
  • Outsourcing accelerator creation: A corporation contracts with an independent group to run the accelerator on its behalf.
  • Joint accelerator partnerships: Corporations partner with other corporations to create joint accelerators (usually focused around an industry).
  • In-house accelerator with an external focus: Corporations create their own internally powered accelerator with outside applicants.
  • In-House accelerator with an internal focus: Corporations can create a completely internal program that accelerates internal teams.

Each of these models can succeed in an appropriate environment, but the selection of one model over another is dependent on the company’s needs and available resources. For instance, an in-house accelerator will be more expensive than a joint accelerator partnership. We investigate this issue deeper in the final section of this gu1ide on accelerator management.

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