Over the last three years, I’ve had the pleasure of working with entrepreneurs addressing a wide variety of markets – from those going after Tier 2 markets in India (music to consumers) to those selling tickets to an urban audience. One selling certificate courses on the internet to others changing how people consume online video or how local advertising is done. Still others running a real world adventure company to one that’s changing how power electronics will make solar energy more practical. Some have a single technical founder, others three or more – most had revenue and some were still figuring out revenue models. And luckily for me all had very motivated, smart and energetic founders.
As an advisor and in some cases as a mentor I’ve worked with these and other companies to help them navigate the shoals of early growth. The truth of the matter is that whether I’ve helped these companies are not, I’ve learned a great deal – besides having a whale of a time working with smart people. Here are three lessons I’ve learned as mentor. As with most lessons they are quite useful in most circumstances.
Do your homework – Most entrepreneurs learn about the markets that they operate in very rapidly, even when they are new to it. Often they dive deep and sometimes they learn just enough to get. So as a mentor before I’m ready to even discuss matters with them, I’ve found that I really need to do my homework, if I’m to engage in an intelligent conversation with them. Also this saves the entrepreneur a whole lot of time, having to educate their mentors first.
Ask questions – the best way to contribute is to ask lots of questions. Not in an interrogatory way nor because asking questions is easy. Asking questions is the best way to unearth assumptions that companies and entrepreneurs have made and often they may not be unaware that they’d made. Asking questions of course is a great way to both learn and identify issues and challenges. Often asking questions about what the entrepreneur wants and their motivations are is more critical than confining the conversation to the business alone.
Listen more – this seems self evident, especially if you are asking questions. However, many mentors having been entrepreneurs and particularly those who were trained as engineers are greatly tempted to jump right into seeking or offering solutions. This is a big mistake, one that I’ve made frequently. Asking questions without listening actively is a great disservice and a lost opportunity to contribute meaningfully. Listening actively is learned behavior which can become second nature with practice. Luckily this is a trait that serves you well whether with your spouse or as in my case, teenaged children.
Do your homework, ask questions and listen more. Seems as simple as that great formula – eat less, exercise more. Much easier said than done. So let’s get started today.