12 Things I Learned as a Project Mentor

One of the things I love the most is mentoring other founders. I’ve mentored a bunch of individuals and teams on various projects, but by far the best experiences as a mentor was working with a group of five 13-year-old boys from a local elementary school. The project is a part of a startup competition for kids, which is organised by the tech park I’m a part of.

Working with kids opened a lot of new horizons to me because it’s not really a standard job. I have no kids of my own, so I didn’t really know what am I getting into. There were quite some challenges working with kids, and the one that stood out the most was their inability to concentrate for more than 3 minutes. The first hour we had together, the little hooligans somehow managed to rip off the curtain from one of the windows. Another day, once I already saw myself rushing to the ER with some broken fingers. Thankfully nothing bad happened.

But in the end, we turned this inability into a real asset. We didn’t need long to figure what is the biggest problem the kids have, that was quite obvious. We just needed a cool solution for it. Easy peasy. I just had to pull out every ace I have up my sleeve to get the job done. But I learned more than from all the previous mentoring before.

You can check the project here: https://makeitdrinks.com It’s called #MAKE IT, drink for more concentration. Obviously. 😀

P.S.: understanding some Slovenian helps 😀

So here there are, the 12 things I recommend you should think about before becoming a startup mentor or thinking about getting one on board.

1.Define what kind of a job this is

Is this a long term and structured mentorship, help with a very specific problem or task, just a quick kick in the ass, to get things moving? Is it strategic, hands-on, or maybe only for motivational purposes? Make sure you make that clear at the beginning.

2. Get as good of an insight inside the project

To do your job as best as you can, you’ll need to know stuff. Numbers, products, plans, timelines. Many of that information are company’s secrets, so be prepared to sign an NDA or even better, have one prepared in advance. Too many companies forget about this, so it’s good to think about this and save some time.

3. Map the problems

You need specific problems/challenges to work on. And believe me, it’s good to choose the right ones. We often work on problems that are not relevant at all for our little startup making it or not.

Sometimes, we lose way to much time defining the problems, sometimes we don’t take enough of that time. For that, I recommend using some exercises you can take from a design sprint toolbox or any kind of similar methodology.

4. Double check the problem/mentor fit

It happens that when you map out the problems, you realize that the biggest issues the startup is currently facing don’t really fall into your field of expertise.

Are you a branding expert but the biggest problem the startup has is getting a longer shelf life for the product and this is the only thing that stands in the way? Of course, you can see that as a challenge for you to grow, but please don’t try to bluff it out, you rather help your mentee to find a better person for the job.

And even when the fit is right, try to think who in your network could bring some additional value to the project.

Another thing that I noticed, mostly being mentored by others, the best mentors are those who aren’t too far ahead of the entrepreneur they mentor, so most of the pains are still fresh in their memory. You know how it is, after a while, you only remember the good things, not the amount of shit you had to take to make it.

5. Set objectives

You need to figure out what are the objectives the startup wants to achieve during the mentorship. If they haven’t set them already, help them do it, otherwise look them over and refine them according to the problems you discovered through the mapping. I personally like to use OKRs, but any kind of approach will do. If the startup didn’t use that before, teach them how to do that properly and you already brought them some value.

You make very clear what should be the outcome of the mentorship. Is that a new strategy, a new value proposition, finished product, a new website look, whatever. Just have a clear idea of what’s the outcome.

6. Doublethink the process

It’s very good if you use some kind of a system or a methodology and equip yourself with the right tools. Sometimes, you have to get creative and figure out some things on the job.

For example, it happened to me to spend 90 minutes trying to ideate some solutions and to come up with nothing in the end. Just an endless ping pong of ideas and replicas why something won’t work.

But give out a bunch of post-it notes and some sharpies, set the timer for 10 minutes and boom, I experienced as many as 70 different ideas up on the wall after the alarm went off. Of course, they weren’t all good, but some were excellent and often ended up in products.

7. Make a timeline

The work must be consistent. One of the best experiences in that regard was the kids project. It’s meant as an extracurricular activity with a deadline for delivering a project paper. So we had to do the sessions every week, to get through everything we needed to prepare. If you think your schedule is packed, try going back to elementary school. Thursday at 4PM was the only opening they had and we never missed it as long as my travel plan didn’t come in between.

Also, remember this is supposed to be serious work. Choose the right place, with everything necessary you might need. Please don’t do it over beers in a bar except its a pure motivational session. 🙂

So, make a timeline. An hour every week, every two weeks, it doesn’t matter. Just plan it out as good as you can. Mentorship must always be result oriented and we like to see results as fast as possible.

8. Get to work!

This is pretty much project specific, so I can’t give much advice here except, be consistent, follow some kind of a process, use the right tools, and generally try to do awesome stuff. 🙂

9. There must always be “homework”

Maybe, it seems that the kids work completely took me over but it works with adults too. At the end of each session, make a plan of what needs to be done until next time. Additionally, recommend books, podcasts or any other kind of content that could be relevant. (I’ll write another article with which I usually like to go)

10. Measure the progress

You set some objectives at the beginning, and if you did it the right way, they should be measurable. Especially if the mentorship is paid. You can’t get paid based on your references or previous successes. Only the real results count.

11. If you shatter the founders you better know how to put them back together.

Some mentors have their own way of mentoring and I saw some completely destroy the mentees at their first sessions. Heck, I can’t say I’ve never done it personally. But it’s easy to shit on other projects. The hard part is to make it work. So better make sure you know what you’re talking about and not just feeding your ego.

12. Remember who’s in the driving seat

Remember, you’re not joining the project to take it over. Being a mentor means using your knowledge and experience to facilitate the way your mentees come to better solutions to their problems. But it’s a founders job to make the tough decisions not yours. The main purpose of mentorship is learning, and, as harsh as it sounds, if needed, you have to let them make some mistakes. Everybody has to grow up eventually right?

That’s it, guys. If you think there’s more to add, let me know in the comments, I’ll be happy to put more stuff in. Now go kick some ass.