Using Mentors Effectively

Note from the author: This article was originally written in the fall of 2013 after I had graduated from college and started working on Chicory full-time. That summer was spent reaching out and expanding my network. These are my thoughts directly after that summer. It is from the perspective of and for students or first-time entrepreneurs. 

As a young entrepreneur you're going to want to surround yourself with people that have the experience that you lack. That's why mentors are absolutely key, especially in the early stages of starting a company. Here is some advice I've picked up along the way for making the most of your mentor/mentee relationships.

First: Finding Mentors

As a young entrepreneur, and especially if you are a student, your networks may be fairly limited. But it is absolutely critical that you find mentors that you can rely on to help guide you through the steps of creating a company. 

1. Your networks - Write out a list of networks that you can tap into.

  • Alma Mater - Reach out to alumni of your school. For many, the prospect of even reminiscing about their college days will be enough to get you your initial phone call. However, don't get discouraged if you don't get an overwhelming number of responses. People are busy and the people you really want to talk to may be getting hundreds of emails soliciting them for help.
  • Clubs/activities - Within your school's alumni base, look for people that participated in similar activities as you. This will increase your odds of getting the first phone call. It could be a varsity sport, or an a cappella group. As long as it is something that has been existence for a while, it can be used!
  • Family/Friends - Who in your immediate vicinity has a larger network than you? Your parents. Talk to your parents, and family friends about what you starting. One of them might have a lead on who to talk with first!
  • Prior Experience - You may have worked at an internship, or a summer camp, or volunteered in South Africa. Tap into that network! (Regardless of whether or not you plan on networking through them, keeping in touch with your former bosses is a great idea.)

2. Tools - There are a number of tools that you can use to network.

  • Linkedin - Linkedin is an amazing tool if you use it correctly. You can find people that you would want to get in touch with, see who you need to network with in order to get in touch with them, and you can even send them a direct message within Linkedin if you want. But remember, Linkedin is NOT a social network. Don't go connecting with anyone and everyone that wants to. Only connect with people that you know are willing to connect you with others, and whom you are willing to connect as well. This will come in handy later when you see that that CEO you'd like to meet is your former classmate's first connection.
  • Alumni Directory - Your school's alumni directory most likely contains class year, occupation and even contact information! 
  • Existing Mentors - As you come in contact with more people, see if anyone that you want to contact is connected with one of your current mentors. An introduction is more powerful than a cold call. 

3. Tips - Helpful hints on networking.

Networking can sometimes feel daunting. Especially if this is your first foray into the "real world." But here is some advice to help structure your initial contact.

  • Study Up - Do a little bit of research. Figure out what this person has done in the past, what their experience is, and how they can help you.
  • Solicit Advice - A lot of people are looking for jobs when they network. But you aren't. You are looking for connections, but more importantly you are looking for advice and guidance. Those are the key words. Let the person you are contacting understand that you want to tap into their experiences and lessons learned, to aid you in creating your own business. 
  • Be Clear About Your Position - Before you talk with the person, make sure that you have a clear understanding of how they can help you and what your ideal outcome would be. Don't just ask for general feedback. Your "ask" should more specific depending on the person's background.
  • Know Your Shit. - It is absolutely imperative that you know your company inside and out. You don't want the person to feel like they are wasting their time talking with someone who is half-assing their own company.
  • Make Them Feel Appreciated - You are asking for someone's advice based on their prior experiences. Regardless of who you talk with, they are going to be experts on their own life and experiences. They are taking the time to share their wisdom with you, so make sure they understand that you also value their time.

* Beginning to network can be frightening but it is very rewarding. Remember that you are in a unique position as someone taking a big risk in starting a company. People will respect that.

Second: Diversifying

As you network, you will start realizing that within your network, there are going to be people with certain specialties. This may include: marketing, advertising, fundraising, development, hiring etc.

1. What is your situation?

Depending on your situation, you are going to want to reach out to different types of people. At first, I started reaching out to people that have started their own companies under the general theme of "entrepreneurship." These people really helped me in getting into the correct mindset and mentality needed for entrepreneurship. Now, I reach out to people who have experience in managing sales teams and growing companies.

2. Think Ahead

What are your needs today, and what are your needs tomorrow. As your company starts to grow and you start hitting milestones, your needs will start changing. So start creating relationships with people whose skills you think will be useful in the next phase of your growth. Talk with them about how you should prepare and what things to think about as you near this point.

3. Have a Tiered Mentor System

Having different levels for your mentors will be important in the future when you want to keep in touch with them and utilize them properly.

  • Inner Circle - Some mentors instantly become strong allies and supporters for you and your cause. These people will be in your first tier. They may be general mentors, or specialists but you should be able discern which mentors are fully committed to you. They are people that you can fully trust and disclose your problems to, even (especially!) in times of distress. Investors also fall under this category.
  • Outer Circle - Second tier mentors are generally mentors that are either too busy to commit to helping you, or that are too specialized and whom you only really talk with when you have a specific problem. 

* Usually you will be able to tell from your gut when someone is willing to be a first tier mentor.

Third: Staying Connected

This may be the most important part of networking. As you gain more mentors and connect with more people, it is crucial that you remain connected with these people and maintain your network. The easiest way to do this is through email. This is where your tiered system comes into play. 

  • Emails to Your Inner Circle - These emails should be in-depth. They will have your top line growth metrics and go into detail about new partnerships, strategies and wins that you have had throughout the month. You want your inner circle to know most about your business so that they can provide informed advice when you talk to them next.
  • Emails to Your Outer Circle - These emails are meant to be a quick ping to let your mentors know that you still exist and are doing well! Here are some points to note:
    • Include Your One-Sentence Pitch - Just in case, remind your mentor what your company does! The more they hear it, the more they will remember it. 
    • KPIs - Are there important KPIs that you can share? With our mentors, we would share the growth in our network size! 
    • Keep it Short - Your mentor should be able to read your update on their phone while they are in the subway or in cab. 
    • Add an Ask - Always have an ask! Are you looking to hire? Are you looking to find a specific contact with a potential partner? 
    • Saying thanks - Saying thanks is incredibly important. These guys don't have to take time out of their day to help you. Send them emails (or better yet, letters) around the holidays or if you're feeling particularly grateful. They will definitely appreciate it.

In my own experience, I would absolutely not be in the position that I am in without my mentors and I am eternally grateful.