Another way to phrase this title is, “Filling Gaps in the Team”. If you are reading this from a campus, you have probably built something cool – at least you think so. Your Professor may like it too. After all, your gizmo fulfilled a commitment made in a grant application. So that makes 3 fans – Program Manager from the granting agency, your professor and the person you see in the mirror.
The sad news is that three fans aren’t a market. And 2 people with a cool technology aren’t’ a company. Once the innovators realize that they need both a market and a business leader to help find and map to that market, the mentor will be a welcome addition to the team.
Recruiting your first mentor is a rehearsal for hiring your first CEO. As with all important relationships in life, choose your influencers carefully because they shape your thinking and guide your actions. They also alter the impressions you make on others. How do you recruit this business leader? You can find mentors by going where serial entrepreneurs gather – every city has them – venture forums, startup meetups, tech venture groups etc.. When you are at these networking events, describe why your customers need what you have built and see how they respond. Note, I said nothing about how your invention works. No one cares. Customers and prospective partners just want to know that it solves a big expensive problem. If you are preparing to submit a grant that demands customer discovery such as NSF I-Corp or Georgia Research Alliance Phase 1, you can even say you are meeting mentors in order to select the right veteran entrepreneur as part of your team. I’ve had teams at Georgia Tech discover excellent mentors using this networking approach.
The role of the mentor is to spin the flywheel to startup speed. Research moves at research speed. Startups have to move much faster. 15 meetings a week is how you discover customers in a startup. Your mentor will show how a career of building a reputation pays dividends. They will be able to call on former customers and employees to find meetings and advisors. Their LinkedIn will have over 500 contacts and they will be able to use them for your team. Once you connect to your mentor, their network becomes your network. Use it.
When research based startups succeed, it’s because they found The Right Mentor who became CEO. That person loves to meet new people listens well and does not hesitate to make the hard decisions quickly about product market fit or people. They are less politic than on-campus leaders. They can’t afford groupthink. So with this picture of a new partner/leader in mind as you search to round out your team, take the plunge and find someone you want to travel, eat and laugh/cry with. It’s all coming your way once you launch a startup.