Every startup that wants to succeed needs a mentor team. These mentors don’t have to be a formal board of advisors, but they should be a diverse group of accomplished business people, lawyers and professors. They don’t have to be experts in the area you are starting your company, but it would be useful to try to find one person who is. You should be able to call or email them anytime you are stumped on a problem you are trying to deal with. You should also be able to meet with them every 1-2 months to give progress reports and talk through your business. Ideally your core team should consist of 3-5 people, but even 1 mentor is a huge help.
It’s important to have a mentor team for a bunch of reasons. First, your mentors will be able to bring an outside perspective that isn’t as close to the business as you are as the founder. Its amazing how many problems someone smart who is a little removed from your business can solve. Second, having a mentor team builds credibility both with others in the business community like potential partners and customers and with potential investors. When I look at startups, if the founder doesn’t have a mentor team, I start to wonder if their idea is any good or if the founder is totally committed. Sort of like a partner, if the founder can’t find someone to like them and their idea enough to be a mentor, there might be something wrong with the idea or the team. Third, mentor teams provide valuable insight into areas that founders many not have experience. Whether its a tax question or how to approach investors or how to present to a partner company, people who are smart and have been successful before usually are able to help you out.
My mentor teams for my businesses have consisted of a lawyer, successful entrepreneurs, professors. For my current company, my partner and I joined the MERLIN Mentors program here in Madison to add to our existing network of advisors and mentors. If you are starting a company, see if there is a program like MERLIN in your area. It is a great way to gain access to mentors who can help you succeed, especially if you don’t have an existing network. If there isn’t a program, email interesting professors you find online or in your area. Write a business plan and enter into a business plan competition. Join LinkedIN and see if you have any connections who might be able to help you. Ask your friends and family if they know anyone who might be interested in listening to your ideas. Not only is it easier than you think to find a good mentor, it’s also one of the most important things a startup can do. It doesn’t even cost any money!