Great startup mentors are a bit like magicians. In the midst of an ordinary conversation, they are able to amaze and astound their mentees with ideas and advice that seem to be pulled out of an empty hat. In my daily work with entrepreneurs, I see such acts of magic almost every day. I see entrepreneurs picking their jaws up off the floor after one astute comment causes a major redo of their business plan or pitch.
Like a magician, these “tricks” are not real magic, but caused by experience and practice. In the case of mentors, that practice comes from years of experience in business and a good memory of what worked, and what failed.
In reality, there are less than a dozen successful business models, just a handful of successful management structures, a handful of structures for sales organizations, less than a handful of marketing techniques, etc. The problem for entrepreneurs is that they don’t know all the options, and don’t recognize when one would work better than another. The rabbit that mentor pulled out of the hat is most often a bit of knowledge in one of the other structural patterns.
I’ve seen magical mentors for decades, and with all the new business accelerators, they seem to be higher in demand than ever before. I believe the root cause is that most entrepreneurship programs focus solely on the individual needs of the entrepreneur and his/her team, rather than the general knowledge of entrepreneurship. Switching metaphors, many of these manage to teach their entrepreneurs how to fish, but only one technique. Fly fishing. Spear fishing. Ice fishing. Deep sea trolling. Pick any one.
Perhaps we’d be better off with entrepreneurs who can catch most any fish, all while doing their own slight of hand on their own business plans. That’s what I aim to do in the programs I run. That, perhaps, is the key benefit to the cohort-based programs, where entrepreneurs get to work alongside and see the plans and patterns of a half dozen or more other startups. To experience and solve more than just their own startup issues.
In the end, the experience of mentors is always going to make mentorship somewhat magical, but the more the entrepreneurs understand how the tricks are done, the better off and more successful they will be. And that is the whole point of mentorship.