in Education, Mentors, Startups

A Perspective on Investor/Mentor Whiplash

CC-BY-NC-ND AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by nocklebeast
AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by nocklebeast

The other day Fred Wilson posted an opinion and some tips on Investor/Mentor Whiplash. He took the position that that is a big problem for accelerators as well as early stage and seed environments. Brad Feld took this as a bit of a misunderstanding on accelerators, he insists that TechStars creates an environment where early stage companies can learn to manage the whiplash. Brad Feld states:

I disagree with Fred. It’s not a big problem. It’s the essence of one of things an accelerator program is trying to teach the entrepreneurs going through it. Specifically, building muscle around processing data and feedback, and making your own decisions.

On the surface this seems correct. A problem (one of many) new founders face is the overwhelming barrage of mentorship (good and bad) and information mixed with the inability to filter. An accelerator should be able to provide the environment where a strong group of peers with some guidance can help to build the “muscle around processing data and feedback.” In the last 6 years I have noticed that is a common problem founders face and their ability to manage it is important to their success. It wasn’t until I experienced the whiplash myself a 2nd and 3rd time that I fully appreciated the damage it can do even if you are prepared for it.

Generally what I tell early stage founders:

  • Only talk to customers once you have something to show them — but that shouldn’t take you a long time, don’t go heads down for months. Asking people what they want and not focusing on something specific they can touch/feel is a path to busy work and infinite sadness.
  • Avoid the mentor parties/socialization. Find two (or three) good people with opposing views and bounce specific data off them but only when you have done something that requires fresh eyes to advise you how to interpret the results.
  • Focus on what isn’t working when getting feedback from mentors. Founders need to be positive but you need to focus on the bad things when talking to your close mentors that have been through it already. If they can’t help you with the tough stuff why are you spending a lot of time with them?
  • Don’t expect a direct answer. Experienced mentors know you are the best person to run your company, not them, and they have developed a way of not telling you what or how to do things but instead challenge you to figure it out in a positive way.

Whiplash from mentors doesn’t just happen in startups, it happens everywhere people are giving you advice or have something to gain by influencing the decisions you are about to make or the opinion you develop on something.

Being prepared and learning to manage the whiplash isn’t just the essence of accelerator programs, it is the essence of education that culminates in the top level you can achieve to filter information – a phd program. At the phd level the filter muscle is almost too strong but that is a topic of a whole other blog post.

The scary thing for entrepreneurs is that accelerator programs are too often run by people that don’t know how to effectively educate people and/or they have something to gain financially by the decisions founders make.

I think this *is* a big problem in accelerators. I wonder if the ability to teach that skill to founders (or select founders that already have that skill) is the difference between a successful accelerator (which is really only TechStars and YC) and one that isn’t (pretty much everyone else)?

[Editor’s note: This post was originally posted on Jesse Rodgers’ Who You Calling a Jesse blog on July 31, 2013.]

  1. Yup….great piece here Jesse and I did read Fred’s post earlier too… It seems to me, that when it comes to Mentorship one should go to those social/mixer type events, but take everything that comes from same with a LARGE grain of salt. They usually don’t produce soild mentor candidates but merely expand your Rol-0-Dex somewhat…finding a Mentor can be a real feat in and of itself, eh! :-)

  2. On this statement: “…and/or they have something to gain financially by the decisions founders make.”

    Why would a mentor be mentoring unless there was something in it for them?
    I’m sure there are folks out there who have the resources to offer mentorship time and energy without any reward, simply because they like doing it (which is it’s own reward), but I’d imagine that they are not too common.
    It may be a bit disingenuous to say that it’s a bad thing when the mentor has something to gain, because in pretty much any scenario I can think of, the mentor has something to gain, even if its just the satisfaction (the number of which I could likely count on one hand).

    I think one point you should be making, was that understanding that relationship is part of what you are learning from a mentor.

    I’d say that in order for the mentor to be vested enough to be giving you good mentorship, they would have to have something to gain by doing to. That doesn’t mean that they are good at being mentors, but if they don’t have a reward, I doubt the are giving the problem their full attention. That might mean getting paid and earning a good reputation, but that is still gain.

    That said, it would certainly be bad if in order to get their reward, the mentor had to work at cross purposes to the founders. That kind of scenario is when this article begins to ring true.

    I would rather have a mentor that wanted me, as a founder, to succeed because in doing so, they reward themselves. The better the founders reward the better the mentors.

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