Tuesday, April 8, 2014

4 Steps To Give New Luster to Your Mentor Program

“Great facilities, a dynamic/stimulating environment and a diverse group of experienced, accessible and talented mentors”  Few will argue that these are the three pillars of a great startup accelerator or incubator. Places like the Atlanta Tech Village (Atlanta, GA), Four Athens Tech Incubator (Athens, GA), and the Capital Factory (Austin, TX) provide the proof. I doubt anyone reading this article will be surprised then to see a budget line item for these facilities called “building maintenance and upkeep”. You are also likely see a budget line item for “events and functions” to foster the environment they desire for “serendipitous interactions” (as Atlanta Tech Village calls it). But what about that third pillar - the mentors? What should operators of these accelerators and incubators do to proactively maintain the luster of their mentor program? As a mentor in two of the above named facilities I’d thought I share a few recommendations.

(1) Teach - a. to cause or help to learn how to do something by giving lessons, showing how it is done, etc. If you think about it from your client’s perspective (members of your incubator), the idea that you can get something (advice) for free is downright suspicious; there’s got to be a catch. This is a mindset that will have to be overcome. The other hurdle is the misguided view that being an entrepreneur means you go at it alone, with an energy drink, the shirt on your back and the few coins in your pocket. By proximity accelerators and incubators encourage interaction among peers. But specifically reaching out to advisers will most certainly require a nudge or two. So as you can see, having an A-list of mentors on your roster is not enough. Without a proactive program to encourage mentor engagement both sides will lose. The startup will miss out on valuable advice and years of lessons learned and the mentors will be underutilized and begin to look for other venues where their talents are sought.  

(2) Promote - a. to help the growth or development of, b. to look after or assist the growth of by labor and care, c. to provide publicity for Here are a few ideas on how you can promote your mentors and your mentorship program - thus encouraging engagement:
  • When mentor holds “office hours”, make sure it is publicized well in advance through all your different communication channels. On the day itself, be sure it is well known that they are on-site.
  • When a mentor attends an event at your location or an event you are sponsoring - take a moment to recognize their presence.
  • Follow their Facebook page, their LinkedIn company page, their blog, and their Twitter handle if they have one. This is easy stuff but important because these deeds reveal to your community the level of admiration, trust and respect you have for their expertise.
  • Introduce, through periodic articles or interviews, each mentor to your community so they can gain greater insight into who they are and what make’s them tick.
  • Hold periodic mentor meet and greets.
  • And when worthy advice is shared, let the community know about it through channels like Twitter or Facebook.
(3) Include - a. to contain in a group or as part of something A mentor should never feel like an outsider or a visitor to your accelerator/incubator. Make your access policy decisions with this in mind. Things to consider here:
  • Special badging to enter facilities
  • Invitation to attend events.
  • Discount or no fee to attend sponsored events
  • Internal access to accelerator calendar/portal/WiFi.
Yes, you may run the risk of people abusing these privileges. If they do, confront them early. If they persist, dismiss them. I don’t believe this is a problem worthy of keeping your mentors at arms length and on the outside looking in. On the contrary, the more they feel like an important pillar of your organization the more rock solid their support and contributions will be.
(4) Cull - a. to reduce or control the size of by removal of especially weaker animals as a means of population control Every once in a while it is important to cull the herd, to keep those that take the role seriously and contribute to the environment you are trying to foster, and weed out those who don’t. Though this may be awkward (to fire a mentor), it is best for the mentors and the clients you serve. Mentors, when actively engaged, can be a difference maker for your accelerator or incubator clients. The experience, wisdom and tough love they share can speed up success or the critical think necessary for a pivoting decision. But it’s not enough to just have a compelling list of mentors on your roster. Like your other pillars (the facilities and atmosphere), your mentor program too requires care and nurturing. Be proactive managing your mentor program. Teach your clients how to use them. And then share the success stories and their impact. Soon you will find that your mentors are as sought after as the Red Bull in fridge.  

Update 2016: Atlanta Tech Village has implemented all of these recommendations.  They have made it a priority to promote their mentor program in 2016 to see if the quality and number of interactions between the Villagers and the mentors improves.

Want to talk more about these recommendations or your mentor program? I'd be glad to.  Feel free to contact me here.

About the author. Mike Gomez is President of Allegro Consulting, a growth specialty firm helping startups and establish businesses plan and execute aggressive growth strategies. He grew his very first client’s business from $8M to $35M in just two years. Mike is a growth strategy and complex sales expert, prolific speaker, writer, three-time marathoner, a former military officer and pilot of both aircraft and helicopters. www.allegroconsultant.com