Finding a business mentor for idea validation

Daniel Sevitt
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Today we see an increasing proportion of Microsoft for Startups companies starting out with more than one founder with one study suggesting that having a co-founder significantly increases your startup’s chances of succeeding.

But whether you are one founder or two, the value having a strong business mentor can provide at every stage in your startup’s development cannot be overstated. A TechCrunch study from 2015 suggested that “33 percent of founders who are mentored by successful entrepreneurs went on to become top performers.” The very first step in your journey is all about building your own confidence in the project you are working on. It doesn’t matter what your idea is or how many times you’ve gone over it, convincing yourself that it’s watertight. Sooner, rather than later, you need to talk it through with someone else. Finding a mentor to help navigate this pivotal founder moment of validating your startup idea is key to helping you reach the next level.

What kind of business mentor do I need to validate my idea?

You want to find someone who believes in you, as a person and as an entrepreneur. At this early stage you want a business mentor who is an expert in the market you are addressing, not a business generalist. There will be plenty of time later on to talk generally about funding or hiring or what company cars offer the best mileage. Right now, you want to find a mentor who can look at your idea in context and ask you all the tough questions you hadn’t thought of.

Don’t expect your mentor to hear you out and give you a yes or no response. Idea validation is about asking questions. Every meeting with your mentor to validate your idea should end with more questions than answers. It’s your job as founder or co-founder to go away and get the answers. And you can’t just shoehorn unappealing answers into the model you already had. When you find an answer that you don’t like, you need to work with your mentor and determine whether it changes your project or whether the project can adapt to this new information.

What is the nature of the mentor/mentee relationship?

Building a relationship with a business mentor is like any relationship built on trust and communication. You want your mentor to tell you what you didn’t know, but also to listen. You are the one who is going to make the decisions. Your mentor will reflect back the processes you are going through right up to decision time. Sometimes a mentor will give you advice that’s hard to hear and sometimes they will help pick you back up after a setback. Do not underestimate the reciprocal value of this relationship. While part of the motivation for a mentor may be altruistic, studies are beginning to show that there are genuine benefits also for mentors working with mentees. An article from The Chronicle of Evidence-Based Mentoring identified four ways mentoring benefits the mentor:

  1. Teaching helps you remember
  2. Mentoring requires you step back and self-examine
  3. Your mentees know things that you don’t
  4. Mentoring makes you a better leader

Ideally you want to set regular meetings with your mentor, especially in this early stage where decisions carry weight and determine forward movement for your idea and your company. But it’s important to set goals. There will always be more questions. Work with your mentor to build a robust timeline for decision making, and a go/no go threshold for validating your idea.  Much will change from the moment your idea is validated enough to proceed through to MVP and beyond. Choose a mentor who understands the mutability of startups and who can support you through those changes.