Start-up mentor: validate your business idea with whoever bothers to listen to you
The role of mentorship in the start-up scene is being increasingly discussed as many entrepreneurs have realised and experienced that mentoring, when done at the right time, often plays an even bigger role than investment in the development of the new start-up. Three well-known mentors in the Ajujaht accelerator programme explain why the role of mentoring in the start-up world is of critical importance, and how to get the most out of the mentor-mentee relationship.
Vaido Mikheim is a project manager with Enterprise Estonia and the KredEx joint institution program for applied research. As a Startup Estonia team member, he mostly mentors companies at the early stage of their life cycle. Mikheim admits that it not possible to define the role of mentoring from only one single perspective – at times, it is necessary to boost the confidence of the mentee, while at other times, their excessive enthusiasm must be somewhat curbed. The most important thing is to keep moving, and do it in the right direction and at a reasonable pace.
According to Andra Altoa, a long-term mentor in the Ajujaht accelerator programme and Head of Customer Data and Strategic Transformations at SEB Baltics, a mentor is like your friendly sparring partner, who asks questions, nudges and guides you, and often does it through hard questions and setting challenges:
“On the one hand, you are a bystander, but on the other hand you put your heart into it as a mentor and truly wish the team success.” She added that mentoring also involves sharing one’s own contacts and experience.
This is confirmed by Mailiis Ploomann, Head of the Private Customer Unit at Elisa, who has over 10 years of mentoring experience. She considers the contact network that comes with a mentor to be one of their key assets – a person might otherwise not be able to reach out to someone who could be crucial for the success of the company, when all it sometimes takes is a single phone call or email.
“To succeed at work, we all need a ‘sparring partner’ to discuss things with, bounce our ideas off and speak our mind out loud to, or to get honest and well-intentioned feedback from a neutral point of view. While a salaried employee can often turn to their direct superior or a colleague to meet this need, start-up entrepreneurs tend to be relatively isolated,” explains Ploomann, adding that a mentor might be exactly what they need.
One or several mentors?
As start-ups are complex undertakings, it is not rare for the teams to engage with several mentors that assist them based on their expertise or specific field of activity. As a company is one integral entity and mentoring areas tend to be intertwined, the suggestions from different mentors may sometimes contradict each other.
“As in everyday life, one must accept that the business world is also full of versatility in terms of opinions, solutions and mistakes. At the end of the day, entrepreneurs must decide for themselves which advice to take or not – they must make their own decisions and deal with their consequences,” the Startup Estonia mentor concluded. According to the Head of Strategy at SEB Baltic, discrepancies between the guidelines and instructions offered by various mentors is one of the most challenging issues for a start-up entrepreneur. Who to believe? Whose advice should be set aside this time? When dealing with important issues, this can determine the fate of a company. Altoa also emphasises that although it may be difficult, it is still the team that makes their decisions and choices.
According to Ploomann, it is definitely better for a company to involve several experts instead of speculating together in the dark or just googling vital issues. “It is quite practical to determine what kind of help and in which area a mentor’s help is expected, and to make sure that the mentor is qualified to offer such help. For instance, if a team turned to me for advice on moving the production of their physical goods abroad, it is an area I know nothing about and I would immediately suggest that they find someone else to help with the matter,” explained Ploomann.
Mentors’ advice for start-ups
For a new business, mentors mostly recommend concerted action; although plans are important and thinking is very useful, things still happen only through people taking action. Naturally, an integral part of taking action is validating your ideas – on as many different people as possible. “Validate your ideas with anyone who can stand still long enough to listen to you. Ask for feedback and cherish every piece of information because it is important to see how different people understand you and interpret what you are saying,” said Ploomann.
According to Andra Altoa, however, the most important thing is to know one’s customers thoroughly and, to survive in this fiercely competitive world, create a product or service that is an MLP (minimum lovable product), not just an MVP (minimum viable product). This means that in addition to solving any obvious bottlenecks, one must also think about customer experience, user-friendliness, design, etc.
“Second, you must choose your team members carefully. Although you might have a lot of fun with a dear friend in the sauna on Saturday nights, you might not fare as well going into business together, if your views on life and goals are different,” said Ploomann, adding that a good team includes people with versatile skills who don’t necessarily need to be friends but should certainly complement each other professionally. Altoa agrees and says that a great team is the foundation of success.
“Life, just like entrepreneurship, is a long process. Everyone has good and bad days. Regardless, you’ll want to create, value and cherish relationships. Turnovers and profits are important, but relationships with customers, competitors, team members and family are even more important,” concluded Vaido Mikheim, mentor of Startup Estonia.