7 Tips for Entrepreneurs: Get the Most Out of Your Mentors
Entrepreneurs will often be in the situation of asking for advice from someone who is giving freely of their time. It may be in the format of a pre-arranged informational interview, a friend of a friend you meet at dinner, or just standing, drinks in hand, chatting at a networking event.
Most recently I held “round tables” for 15 entrepreneurs who signed up to meet with me at BizTEC‘s conference, which is part of their annual entrepreneurs contest for students and academics throughout Israel.
This is the second year in a row that I’ve supported BizTEC as a judge and workshop leader, so I already had a good sense of what can and cannot be accomplished in 15 minutes, and how to get the most out of a mentor-mentee meeting. Here are some tips to keep in mind for your next meeting of this type, regardless of if it’s at BizTEC or elsewhere:
1) Hone your pitch. Practice it on people who don’t know what you do. Listen to their feedback and incorporate it. Heck, practice it in an elevator! If you have 15 minutes to get someone’s advice (and that is much longer than you would typically get at a networking event), you don’t want to spend 10 minutes explaining what you do, leaving only 5 minutes for the advice part of the conversation. I am partial to this very basic elevator pitch template published last year on TechCrunch. It does the job simply and effectively.
2) Leave the slides at home. Just booting up your computer wastes precious time. If you have a single image or diagram that helps tell your story then bring it, printed out (in a plastic sleeve or printed on cardstock, to keep it nice), or have it up on your screen before you sit down – a tablet is good for this. If you are already far enough along in your business that you have an under-two-minute video that pitches your company, then this is fine to show. But do us all a favor and make sure you have it teed up to play right as you sit down.
3) Come with a goal in mind. It’s much easier to help someone in a limited amount of time if they come with a specific question, or an area they want to discuss. “Uh, what would you suggest” is a bit too vague of a starting point. I can always punt, but I’d rather focus on the issue where you feel I can add the most value.
4) Prepare your mentor in advance. This is more of a constructive comment for the BizTEC organizers than the entrepreneurs. Poor guys, they were just told to send their name and email address, and who they want to meet with. I suggest that next year, the organizers ask them to include their company name and Web site (if it exists), industry, and what they hope to get out of the 15 minutes with me. If I had had such a list, I would have spent some time preparing for the sessions, and could have helped the time together be more productive.
If you know you will be meeting with someone to discuss your venture, don’t be afraid to send them some background information ahead of time. Don’t send them a 97 page PDF (I received one of those recently, too. The startup was surprised it took me so long to respond… well, I wanted to actually read the darn thing before getting back to them). DO send a link to your Web site, or a short research analysis (around 5 pages) about your market space, or a brochure, or an investor presentation. Get it? Send X or Y or Z… don’t send all of the above because your mentor could get overwhelmed. If your mentor doesn’t have the time to read what you’ve sent in advance, oh well. If they DO have the time to prepare for your session, you will both get much more out of your time together.
5) Don’t be afraid to get (a little) personal. It’s hard to keep track of 15 people met over the course of four hours. I write lots of notes so I can remember, but it’s hard to write everything down when I’m trying to listen, think, and talk during that time as well. When things get a bit more personal, it helps make more of an impression. Are you new in town? Mention it. Is there an interesting personal story behind your company idea? Share it. If you know something about your mentor’s background that you can connect with (say, you both went to the same school, or root for the same basketball team), then definitely mention it. Some of this can be found out with a quick read of their bio or a glance at their LinkedIn profile. I am not suggesting you get deeply intimate, just make a small personal connection, which helps build trust and memorability.
6) Open the door to future communication. One important accomplishment in your short time with a mentor is to determine how to stay in touch, and with what ground rules. The person gave you their card, a few minutes of their time. Does that mean they want to link on LinkedIn? If you’re not sure, ask. Does it mean they are willing to answer more questions by phone or email, or even meet again? Again, set the ground rules, and make sure you have each others’ contact information. Which leads me to…
7) For god’s sake, bring a business card. One problem with many entrepreneurs is that their ventures are so young, they don’t even have business cards yet. This is silly. You can have business cards designed online and printed for under $50. And in true lean fashion, you can always redesign them when you have your perfect logo in sync with your brand’s new look & feel at launch time. If your company is so stealth or so new it doesn’t even have a name yet, just print up cards with your own name, phone number and email address.
One entrepreneur give me a business card that he had printed out on his home printer. This is a great solution – it hardly cost him anything, I have all of his contact details in one place, and I know he’s a bare bones entrepreneur so I really don’t care what weight the paper the card is printed on. I just want it to fit into my business card case so it won’t get lost.
OK, so let’s say you just don’t have the time/budget/inclination to print up business cards – after all, doesn’t everyone just bump smartphones these days? (no, not everyone does). So follow up the meeting with an email or a LinkedIn invitation. Make sure your mentor has your correct contact details, since you never know, s/he may have a brilliant idea for you later on and want to share it with you. Or a valuable contact to introduce you to. In short, make it easy to stay in touch.
The atmosphere at the Technion’s Taub Computer Science building at the BizTEC conference last week was positively electric, and not just because of the free espresso. Some of my conversations with entrepreneurs in the round tables were ripe for lean marketing analysis, and I’ll be sharing them in later posts.
Photo credit: alandberning http://www.flickr.com/photos/14617207@N00/3475194538/sizes/m/in/photostream/
Entrepreneurs will often be in the situation of asking for advice from someone who is giving freely of their time. It may be in the format of a 15-minute round table, or an informational interview, or just standing, drinks in hand, at a networking event.