The startup life may sound glamorous, adventurous, fun even. But when you are starting out with only ideas and have no way to know what the future holds, a guiding hand can be helpful. Ask any entrepreneur and they will happily name the mentors and guides who helped them in their journey, from relatives to industry veterans.
“Coming from a business family, my father was the first one to help me when I decided to start Mr. Milkman, in 2015. Being in my final year of college, I had no idea of how to run the show, how to manage finances and deal with compliance,” says Samarth Setia, founder of Mr. Milkman, a dairy tech startup.
Setia’s father helped him to connect with several people, including Amit Dhanuka, CEO of Kejriwal Bee Care, and Virender Jeet, senior VP of technology at Newgen Software. Setia and Jeet would meet over a cup of coffee or a game of golf, and discuss the business. It is here that Jeet taught him to understand what needs to be measured, how to raise funds and how to build a team with technical know-how.
Alankar Chandra, an alumnus of IIM Ahmedabad, and founder of travel startup, Wild Voyager, used his alma mater to find his mentor. As someone just starting off, Chandra, like Setia, wanted to try a lot of things quickly. Through common friends, he was introduced to Jabong’s former MD, Praveen Sinha, who taught him the details of digital marketing.
“I knew that my shortcoming was digital marketing, of which I had no knowledge. So I looked out for someone who could help me in that area. Jabong obviously had mastered it. Advice Praveen (Sinha) gave me turned out to be the best. He told me to use the IIM network, through which I went on to meet my current business partners as well as future clients,” says Chandra.
Startups at different stages have different needs. Therefore, one mentor cannot serve all. According to Debashis Chatterjee, director, IIM Kozhikode, “Early stage startups require what I call ‘wider’ mentoring whereas growth stage startups require ‘deeper’ mentoring. Requirements of startups at early stage are diverse, unclear and to some extent preliminary. A mentor who is a jack-of-all is better suited for the task.”
As the startups grow, they become more focused with respect to their products and markets, demanding deeper but specific understanding. “A mentor who has ‘been there, done that’ is suitable for this kind of mentorship. Startups have to have credible experts with specific understanding of markets and products similar to that of the startup,” says Chatterjee.
Choosing the mentor
Do you choose a mentor because he or she is well known in the industry? Do you choose one for knowledge or experience? Or do you choose them because they share your values and passion?
According to Ankit Garg, CEO and co-founder, Wakefit.co, a sleep solution company, the mentor might or might not have experience and knowledge of your particular industry. “When you are starting out and scared of taking the next step, the mentor might be the one to give you courage. That push is what you need the mentor for.”
Garg was mentored by a former national brand manager at a leading FMCG brand. While the mentor’s philosophy matched that of Garg and his partners’, her knowledge also came in handy when they started actively marketing their product. She helped them understand what media platform to select, the idea of sustainable marketing and how keeping the cost low.
“For our first big marketing campaign, we were given a huge estimate. As someone who had so far depended on organic traffic, this seemed unimaginable. She made us realize it was an investment on building our brand’s recall value. We needed to reach out to people who weren’t thinking of buying a mattress right now, but in a few months our company’s name should be in their mind,” he says.
There is also a chicken and egg question here: Does a good network help you get a good mentor, or does a good mentor help you build your network?
If family or friends can help you get in touch with someone who can guide you, that is a good way to find and reach out to a possible mentor. The mentor can also help you get in touch with contacts he has built over the years.
“You might just get these contacts if you cold call, and yes, that shows initiative. But when you are trying to start a company, and are pressed for time, a recommendation might mean a lot of time saved,” says Anuj Rakyan, owner of RAW Pressery, a cold pressed juice brand.
A mentor’s suggestions often come from the experience of having worked through similar challenges. Dhanuka’s experience in the honey industry was the closest Setia could have found for his idea for the dairy industry. Some of his advice was industry specific—such as whom to approach and how to build contacts – while some remained more general in nature.
“As a startup founder, you want to do so much so quickly, you sometimes overlook the obvious. At the beginning I was making silly mistakes like booking work tours with my own personal money. But he made me realize that if I kept on doing that, I would never be able to understand how much the company is actually spending and therefore, how much we will need to be sustainable,” explains Setia.
For Wakefit’s Garg, sometimes the mentor’s idea might not click with the founders completely. They then have a discussion and if they are still unconvinced, they take the suggestion to a third person and let him weigh in on it.
Sometimes though, Garg and partner Chaitanya Ramalingegowda (who incidentally was a mentor before joining the company), go with their gut. For example, in March 2017, when they wanted to increase their product portfolio by making sofas under the Wakefit brand, their mentor thought it was too early to do that and they could lose focus. “We ignored that bit of advice and launched it anyway. But, we had to close it in nine months, though it was a learning experience,” says Garg.
Sometimes the suggestion the mentors give is taken with a pinch of salt. “It is okay to do that, because often, certain ways of thinking can be obsolete. And while you trust your mentor, and respect their experience, it is often your gut instinct which helps you take the final call,” says Rakyan. He has been on both sides—he was been mentored by the likes of former Mondelez India vice-chairman Rajiv Wahi and is now mentoring startup founders as well.
The journey of a single founder can be lonely, says Rakyan. And therefore, he tries to pay it forward by informally helping a few startup founders as well. It isn’t just the founders that benefit. Rakyan believes that while founders are ruled by instinct and passion at the beginning of a start-up journey, it is slowly overtaken by logic once the company starts to expand. Talking to these young founders keeps Rakyan on his toes, keeps his thinking fresh and passion as strong as day one.
“It’s a win-win for both. And while start ups founders may need it the most when they suddenly have too much money, or have to build a team, it is also attractive investors to know that the company has good mentors to guide the founder through thick and thin,” he adds.
Mentor or investor ?
The approach taken by each mentor plays a different role in the evolution of a startup.
A good mentor asks questions and does not force his or her answers. Mentoring opens-up the potential of an entrepreneur, while an investor quite often limits himself to ensuring better returns on investment. A mentor taps into the creative abilities; investor brings alignment with goals.
Both play important roles as one ‘lets loose’ and other ‘tightens’. An entrepreneur has to keep in mind that if he or she wants to be creatively challenged, s/he should turn to a mentor. If s/he needs to be challenged for business performance, it’s time to meet the investor.