10 Tips on Startup Mentoring

Giff Constable startups

This post originally appeared on the Lean Startup Machine blog, with a few small changes. I wrote it with LSM’s bootcamp in mind, where in the course of a weekend multiple teams try to validate/invalidate as much as they possibly can around their startup idea (it is really something to watch). However, I like to think that these mentoring tips have pertinence outside of that weekend structure as well.

1. Get the basics down first

Make sure that the team can explain the fundamental idea behind their product:

  • What is the problem they are solving?
  • Who is the customer?
  • How they are solving the problem or meeting the need?
2. Prioritize the biggest risks

Then you want them to priorize their biggest 2 or 3 risks and the assumptions for each. The key is making sure the team is looking across all aspects of the business:

  • What is the business model? (Who pays for the product, how, and do they have money?)
  • What is the market size? Are their expectations of market size realistic?
  • Who is their competition and why are they better?
  • What are their guesses for customer acquisition?
  • Are their any technical risks to creating the solution?
3. Get practical on the tactics

For the identified “biggest risks”, drill into the specific tactics they are planning and ask yourself:

  • Will those tactics deliver useful data to validate or invalidate assumptions?
  • Can the tactics be streamlined in any way?
  • Can you come up with any other test-tactics that would benefit their process?
4. Use your network

Think about how you can facilitate their tactics — this is especially important when the team needs to get to an unusual type of customer. Can you make an introduction and get them on the phone with someone? Are you friends with someone who could? External people often are happy to help.

5. Challenge, play devil’s advocate, and poke holes in arguments

Don’t shy away from tough questions. Force the team to stress-test their assumptions and stretch their thinking.

6. Let the team come to its own conclusions

Never put things forth as an answer or fait accompli. Do not hesitate to point out risks, competitors or precedents you have seen before, but make the team come to a conclusion themselves after reviewing their learning.

7. Be careful how your interrupt

Rove around but be careful how you interrupt teams. You can often quickly tell if a team is struggling or busily productive with just a couple questions. If the former, let them execute. If they seem to be struggling, or haven’t gotten out of the building enough, then be more forceful.

8. Keep it crisp

The teams have a lot to do in a short period of time, so manage your interaction so that it remains high-impact and efficient. Don’t be afraid to politely but firmly cut someone off who wants to spend a lot of time explaining their great solution and all the features.

You want to keep the team moving. Sometimes it makes sense to speak to team members individually or in smaller groups so that they can divide and conquer. Prioritize and break up your own mentoring as needed — you do not need to be comprehensive in one sitting.

9. Collaborate with other mentors

If you are feeling stuck, or want help coming up with more efficient tactics, don’t hesitate to pull in another mentor. No one has all the answers, and sometimes it can be really tricky to decide what advice to give. However, if you pull in another mentor, brief them first yourself and don’t make the team do the entire download process again.

Common instances when you might want a second opinion:

  • When a team struggles with a pivot/leap
  • When a team is internally conflicted on priorities
  • When your gut tells you that their tactics will be low-return, but you don’t have better ones coming to mind
10. Be a mentor, not a team leader

Remember that you are a mentor, not a team lead. Participants go through Lean Startup Machine as much for the process as anything. Reading about “lean startup” is fine and good, but this stuff only sinks in when you actually start to put the ideas into real practice. They might need to be pushed to get out of their comfort zone, but teach them to fish — don’t give them the fish.