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Startups Have 99 Problems, and Here’s Another One

In the immortal words of Jay Z, “money ain’t a thang”

And what’s this got to do with startups?, I hear you ask.

Well, more and more founders are telling me words to the same effect.

Or, as they are more likely to put it, “Money is not the most important thing I need right now”.

Talking to them, it’s becoming clear to me that there’s an increasing amount of unmet demand for something else. Something less tangible than money, and yet perhaps more vital in the early stages of starting a company. One thing which seems to be in short supply in TechCity and beyond:

Mentoring

A person to guide, advise and help think up solutions to those day-to-day business problems for which there are no textbook answers.

This is what a growing number of startups want over money.

It makes sense

It’s cheaper than ever to start a business. The supply of early stage capital, between all the accelerators, incubators, early stage funds, university funding programmes, government initiatives and crowdfunding platforms available these days, has never been greater.

As a result, startups may face 99 problems, but finding their first few thousand pounds apparently isn’t one (finding their next few is an entirely different matter, as I’ve argued here before).

I’m familiar with the view that says “who needs a mentor when you have the internet”. Indeed, I used to think this way myself. However, I’ve recently come to realise that this is the wrong way of seeing things.

While there is a wealth of information on the internet, the vast majority of human knowledge and experience – two essential ingredients of good mentoring – remains, and probably will always remain, in people’s heads. There’s no substitute for an actual mentor.

He/she can have a transformational impact on a fledgling startup.

There is some great startup mentoring taking place out there so it wouldn’t be fair to say mentoring is fundamentally “broken”. But it isn’t reaching as wide an audience as needs it.

To solve this problem, I’d love to see a few things:

1. An open, national platform for finding mentors – as opposed to the walled-garden / velvet-roped set up in which a lot of mentoring currently takes place

2. Mentoring with no strings attached – a standalone offering

3. Structured mentoring – a formal approach instead of throwing people into a room and seeing what happens

4. Free at the point of delivery – at least to begin with, or for a certain period of time

5. An assurance of quality – standardization of quality is required

6. Personal / individual – group mentoring has its place but 1 to 1 mentoring is key

This is hardly a blueprint, much less a magna carta. Call it a starter for 10.

I’d love to hear if you have any ideas too. What I have I left off this list? Is there something on it that shouldn’t be?

Startup founders are unlikely to ever start going around TechCity hollering “mentoring ain’t a thang”, but until they’re expressing sentiments to that effect there’s work to be done.

Can we make finding a mentor as accessible as initial startup capital has become?

That’s the holy grail. Yep. Hat tip to Jay Z again.

Mawuli Ladzekpo formerly worked in VC, and now coordinates startup loans at the Brightside Trust.

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