Words tossed about so frequently in startup communities, it is easy to conclude they mean the same thing; that it doesn’t matter what such people are called, as long as you have some, you’re in good shape.
But is that really so?
Over the years, I’ve come to notice that startup communities collect mentors as though they are a precious resource. Young entrepreneurs pay to join exclusive organizations and communities to have access to mentors while institutions, incubators, and resources hoard them as though access to a certain pool of them is what you need (rather than having the right/ideal mentors and advisors).
While entrepreneurs, the public, and the press may not consider the difference, mentors and advisors are NOT the same thing. When you consider the interpretation of your audience, of your having one vs. the other, you can appreciate why it’s so important to surround yourself with the appropriate mentors and/or advisors.
What is a Startup Mentor
Not making an understanding of the distinction any easier, is the very definition of a mentor: an experienced and trusted adviser. Thanks Merriam-Webster.
In Greek mythology, Mentor was in his old age, a friend of Odysseus. Odysseus placed Mentor in the charge of his son, Telemachus, when Odysseus left for the Trojan War.
Because of Mentor’s relationship with Telemachus, and a story richer than I’ll share here, the personal name Mentor has come to mean such a person who imparts wisdom to and shares knowledge with a less experienced colleague.
A teacher. No? Students have mentors. Young professionals are guided by mentors. Of course, even experienced executives have mentors. The role of those mentors is to teach. Even if you disagree with the role they play, as an entrepreneur, you must consider the implications of how your audience interprets what such word means to you and your business. Both positively and negatively, with regard to any of your audiences, from your customers to your investors, if you have and highlight your mentors, it suggests you are being taught, does it not?
The most successful entrepreneurs and startups are mentored. Everyone needs to be mentored by those with more experience and wisdom if they hope to avoid failing. What matters though is what you’re being taught, and what your audience is told as a result of who is doing the mentoring.
|Mentors aren’t typically seen as being part of the team. They aren’t “formally” involved, whatever that means. When startups raise money, they often highlight their advisors and even have a Board of Advisors. Have you ever heard of a Board of Mentors?
In my experience, your mentors should be so elevated above your own knowledge base that their very involvement in what you’re doing communicates sophistication. “What we’re doing is so incredible that I have to be mentored by Dr. Jeffrey Shuren (Director of the Center for Devices and Radiological Health at the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA)” Wow.
Mentors are experienced in your field to such a degree that they can teach you everything you need to know about the world in which you find yourself.
Food for thought
Is it just me or does Silicon Valley favors advisors over mentors, while other cities are flush with mentors?
Perhaps, there, angel investors play the role of mentor, investing in what they know and love first, rather than in seeking the role of investor.
What is a Startup Advisor?
Experienced professionals. You could debate with me of course but again, consider not what is your experience but what the word means; an advisor is the person actively involved in your world (not just with experience in) such that they can guide you through the work you are doing today. The inventor of the Walkman might be the ideal mentor as you develop the next portable music revolution but can such a person as effectively advise you on how to scale your business, develop the supply chain, structure your business model, or design your product today?
Startups succeed as a result of the right team; the people who are the best in the respective industry/market and can help the startup more proactively. Advisors are seen, to a small extent, as part of the team. They are promoted on startups’ websites, in pitch decks, and they lend credibility to your ability to succeed.
“What we’re doing is so challenging that Mark Neumann, Amgen Marketing VP is one of our advisors.”
The key distinction? Advisors help you succeed whereas mentors help you innovate and disrupt.
If you’re reading this and you provide these values, rather than seeking them, ask yourself, do you teach or guide? The difference is subtle but there is a distinct difference. Then, please, ask yourself, are you actually mentoring? Are you really advising?
How do you engage with an advisor vs. a mentor?
Chime in with me here. It seems that the role of a Mentor ends; for a period of time they teach and ultimately “class ends.” You’ve accomplished that for which you were being mentored.
Mentors, being more “academic” are serving entrepreneurs and therefore don’t get much/any equity unless indeed really playing the role of an angel investor. Mentors may remain involved in perpetuity but shift, it seems, to being behind the scenes, mentoring individuals rather than mentoring a grown company.
On the other hand, Advisors are more involved for the life of the company; effectively, though perhaps not actually. You are acquiring practical experience and timely know how in an advisor (at least, you should be) and thus they’re compensated, in a sense, with equity. As active professionals in their own right, advisors are forever motivated to see you succeed as your success is a reflection of their work on your behalf.
Does it really matter?
You have to admit, there is a reason startup pitch decks highlight such people. And even if you don’t consider there to be a difference between the words, does your audience agree? Are the people supporting the work you are doing teaching you based on experience or guiding based on know how?
It matters if only because you want it to matter!
- You are being mentored by those who give you a serious competitive advantage by offering sage experience that enables you to do something no where else being done.
- You are being advised by those who know what you need to do, how, and through whom, in order to be successful. Your advisors ensure you don’t make mistakes that cause most new ventures to falter.
Investors, want both.
What then is the ideal mentor or advisor?
Well that’s a topic for another post isn’t it? Suffice it to say, whether or not you have mentors or advisors is as important to what you’re doing as who they are and their experience. Do they know your industry? Are they well connected? Are they startup veterans or corporate executives? Will they actually do some work for you or are they available for a call or coffee?
I’ll get around to some thoughts on how to find the ideal; in the meantime, I’ve shared some thoughts on what you need to be doing to get the right marketing person engaged, it’s probably safe to say that attracting the right mentors and advisors is the same as attracting the right talent to your team: enjoy and good luck!