Finding Great Mentors
Like most, I was lost and confused my freshman year of college. I had moved across the country to a city I had never spent more than a handful of days in, surrounded by thousands of strangers who seemed so much smarter and more experienced. And, I was set to embark on a four-year adventure with many potential outcomes. One thing I knew, was that I was interested in entrepreneurship, though I had no idea where to start.
Then I met Neil and Arthur.
Neil Shah and Arthur Woods were seniors at the time, and both were entrepreneurs as well—a couple of years prior, Neil started a fair trade tea company, and Arthur launched a farmers market delivery service. Those are notable achievements, but what made Neil and Arthur stand out from the typical college students with senioritis, was their penchant for mentorship. They painstakingly started a social entrepreneurship fellowship program that would take in 10-15 freshmen each year, expose them to local industry leaders, and help them get their own ventures started.
Neil and Arthur, circa 2009
Within the first few weeks of college, and with a bit of dumb luck, I was accepted into their fellowship—and Neil and Arthur quickly took me under their respective wings. Over countless coffee sessions, the two embedded in me the fundamentals I still carry to this day—how to talk to customers, how to follow up after meetings, how to be productive, and so much more. The opportunity to be in their presence alone was inspiring.
There’s no chance I’d be the person I am today without their help, and it’s made me embrace the insane value of having mentors. A great mentor is like the ultimate self-help book: a book that not only gives you tips but adapts its advice to meet you exactly where you are in life. After meeting with a great mentor, I walk away feeling like downloaded a whole set of lessons—information from experiences, tips on what to do and what to avoid—into my brain, ready for action. They’re so important I wrote an ode to them after our acquisition!
One of our favorite Encore mentors, Sonny Ganguly
What’s surprising to me is how few of my friends and colleagues seem to have mentors or at least ones they keep in regular touch with. Whether you’re starting a company or trying to excel at work or school, I promise having a few great mentors will be one of the best decisions you’ll ever make.
One quick, but important, note about mentors: most people would be super happy to be a mentor. You may feel like you’re being annoying or taking up someone’s time, but it’s not usually the case. You’re providing them with an opportunity to give back and, in the process of teaching, a mentor clarifies past thinking and learnings.
So, how do you find a great mentor?
What Kind of Mentor
First, you need to figure out what kind of mentor you’re looking for. Specifically, what do you need help with, and what kinds of experiences would a mentor ideally have in order to help you?
- Career advice/self-improvement (i.e. recommendations on what to learn when leveling up, job opportunities, etc…)
- A particular problem you’re trying to solve right now at work (i.e. stuck on sales, need legal advice, etc.)
- Life (i.e. how to deal with certain family situations, etc.)
There are at least two levels of mentors to consider:
X + 1
To steal a phrase I learned from Arthur: I’ve found that some of the best mentors are “x + 1”—they’re people who are only a step further along in what you need help with. For example, the most helpful mentors for me right now are those who have recently successfully built a startup (ideally in B2B and with a similar type of contract size and customer).
Duke Chung started a customer service software company while in college and successfully sold it to Microsoft 14 years later. Every time I meet with him, I walk away with shivers because his advice is so poignant and relevant. Nemo Chu grew two internet companies from zero to 7-figure revenue numbers in 3 years. Each time I’ve met with him, my brain explodes because he knows how to push things to the limit.
The best thing about X + 1 mentors is their recency and relevancy. What you’re going through now, they recently faced, so their experience is fresh, as well as their tactics and perspectives. As a result, advice tends to be much more accurate and immediately actionable. X + 1 mentors are also more accessible—they’re successful, but it’s not like trying to get in contact with Oprah.
These include professors, researchers, consultants, reporters, industry veterans, and venture capitalists. They’re helpful for getting the lay of the land. Thanks to their experience, they have the benefit of having a birds-eye view of a certain issue or industry. For example, if you’re trying to talk to some potential customers to validate your business idea, meeting with an “expert” can be equivalent to meeting a batch of consumers at once.
Steve Kaplan is our lawyer and our mentor on all things related to investors and fundraising. He’s someone we can call on anytime to get the right answer. Max Wessel currently runs SAP’s accelerator and, as both a venture capitalist and angel investor, is my go-to person when I need to understand broad trends and opportunities.
How to Reach Them
By a wide, wide margin, the best way to meet a mentor is through an introduction. Simply put, you find someone you admire (a boss, a coworker, a teacher, a friend) and ask them if they know anybody who might be willing to chat with you about ____. This is why it’s so important to know what kind of help you’re looking for—often, you don’t know the person you want to meet, but being specific about what qualities, skills, background, achievements, etc. they embody empowers others to think of their network on your behalf.
I wrote last time about exactly how to ask for an introduction, so you have no excuses!
Power tip: when you do meet with a mentor, asking them to introduce you to others is one of the best habits you can cultivate. It reasons that since a mentor is successful (and as generous as a Neil or Arthur), they can open the door to many other successful people they know. It’s like a virtuous cycle of mentors!
If you really want to meet somebody and have no mutual connections, you’re onto plan B: cold emailing them. It helps to craft a compelling email—one that’s concise, relevant, and makes clear you’re asking for their advice (and not trying to sell them something).
Yep, that’s Washington Wizards and Caps owner/mega-investor/former AOL executive/author/Georgetown alum/Emmy award-winning producer Ted Leonsis himself responding to me at 6 AM and agreeing to an in-person meeting with me. It turns out; he was interested in getting an on-the-ground perspective of a college student entrepreneur from his alma mater. This experience alone has convinced me that it truly never hurts to ask when you’re on a path to finding great mentors.
Establishing a relationship with a great mentor is one of the highest-leverage things that anybody, not only entrepreneurs, can do, and—best of all—it’s something you can do right now. So do it!
James Li is a product manager at Meltwater, leading and building the Executive Alerts product. Previously, he was the co-founder and CEO of Encore Alert, which was acquired by Meltwater in March 2016. Executive Alerts is a tool built specifically for executives to receive a handful of alerts each day about the most critical threats and opportunities facing their company, competitors, and industry. It uses machine learning to sort through data from social media, paid search, hiring, news, and more to help clients like the University of Michigan, Jersey Mikes, and the Denver Broncos act on emerging trends, crises, and important people. This article was originally posted on Jamesli.com, it’s reprinted here with permission of the author.