The Incubation Cheat Sheet: Finding & Engaging Mentors

If you are an incubator or accelerator operating in an emerging startup ecosystem, you know how hard it is to run a mentor-driven incubation/acceleration program when there are few mentors readily available to support the startups through their journey. Sometimes you even come across mentors who have not been where the startups are and are giving away bad advice. Some mentors who are good and available tend to lose interest after some time if they don’t see the right incentives for themselves or get burnt out because they feel they are wasting their time answering too many fundamental questions for the startups.

With all these issues, how do you find the right mentors for your startups and engage them in a meaningful way?

Don’t worry! Following is a step-by-step guide that will help you do exactly that.

1.Start at the End: Before you go for mentor shopping, you need to know why you need them. You need to first define what is the outcome you are trying to achieve for your startups. Are you trying to get founders with ideas to become startups with products & early customers? Are you trying to get startups with early customers to Product-Market fit? Are you trying to get startups with a good amount of traction to scale? Different outcomes warrant different mentoring skills and therefore, it is time for you to think about the outcomes of your incubation/acceleration program. You might even have to relook at your selection process and if it is really aligned to your program’s desired outcomes.

2. Assess your Startups: Do you know what exact help each startup needs from mentors? Can you predict what help they would need throughout the program? Most startups demand ad-hoc mentors based on the current fire they are trying to put out. Getting the perfect mentor for a startup’s specific need really quickly is like finding the genie living in Aladdin’s lamp. Therefore, it is important to assess what stage your startups are in and in what areas they would need help throughout the program. Capria VentureBasecamp’s Quantum Assessment provides a way to do it. The assessment assesses the startups’ capabilities across 12 Critical Success Elements (CSEs) and generates a checklist of items the startups need to work on across these CSEs to get to the next stage of growth. For example, this process will help you understand if a startup’s founding team has gaps and how they can fill those gaps before they start pitching for seed investment. You can use this checklist to create a customized roadmap for each startup for the program which will help you understand exactly when they would need what type of mentoring.

3. Mentor Matchmaking: Once you know what help your startups need, you can start looking out for mentors who can provide that help. However, it is hard to find well-rounded mentors in the form of veteran entrepreneurs and investors who can advise on everything the startups need help with. This is where the 12 Critical Success Elements (CSEs) come to the rescue again. Instead of looking for star veterans who everyone is trying to get some time from, you can find specific experts in every CSE to help with a specific task an entrepreneur is trying to do ( see Moneyball). For example, if the entrepreneur needs to create a go-to-market strategy for their app, you could find a senior product or marketing person who has successfully launched a new app into the market. At Capria VentureBasecamp, we have created a template consisting of all the skills you would look for in a mentor throughout a startup’s lifecycle. The template can be used to profile any mentor you are talking to and then you can use that profile to match with any startup’s need.

4. Build the Right Incentives: Every mentor has a different objective behind mentoring. Just like an entrepreneur needs to figure out the incentives that motivate a customer to use their product, you need to wear the entrepreneur’s hat to figure out the incentives that motivate a mentor to work with your startups. Get a coffee or chai with them and find out what they want to gain from this relationship. Are they looking for an exciting startup to invest in? Are they looking to join the startup that excites them? Are they looking to be compensated for being an advisor? Are they looking for an advisory board position? Is there a particular sector or business model that excites them? Do they want to get recognized publicly or personally for their work? Or Do they just love being around startups? You need to deeply understand your mentors’ personas to make sure that they feel satisfied being your incubator’s mentors so that you can retain them for a long time.

5. Avoid Mentor Burnout: Mentors don’t have a lot of time to spend with startups. So, they want to use any precious time they have to help the startups in the most effective and impactful way. Unfortunately, when many startups meet mentors, they are unclear about what exactly they want the mentor’s help with and end up asking very broad and vague questions or fundamental questions that they could have found answers to online or elsewhere. This makes mentors feel that they are wasting their time. At Capria VentureBasecamp, we provide startups with a ToDo list of tasks to build their businesses and complementary toolkits for completing those tasks. This helps the startups focus on a specific element of their business at a time and generate specific questions to ask the mentors about a particular task they need to do.

This cheat sheet is just a small resource provided by Capria VentureBasecamp as part of our Comprehensive Incubator Training Program.

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