From one founder to another: Principles for good mentorship

Authored by: Mike Quinn
May 19, 2020 - 3 mins read
Mike Quinn Mentor Zoona

From one founder to another: Principles for good mentorship

I was in the startup trenches for over ten years building Zoona, one of Africa’s first and most successful fintechs. Since leaving a year ago, I’ve had the privilege of stepping back to reflect on my journey and write a book on what I experienced and learned. I’ve also had the chance to mentor several entrepreneurs who are early on in their journeys and have big ambitions. Most recently, I’ve done this with two talented, founding CEOs of Catalyst Fund portfolio companies – farMart and Pesakit

At first, I didn’t know if I could be helpful. But I thought back to all the times I benefited from having high-quality mentors to lean on for support and advice. As an entrepreneur, there is always pressure to have the right answers, even when you are fumbling along in the dark. A good mentor can shine a flashlight to illuminate different paths and obstacles ahead that you may not see. 

Throughout my time at Zoona, I benefited from having Patrick Pichette as my closest mentor. Patrick was a sounding board for all kinds of challenges I faced, such as strategy, co-founder dynamics, board and investor management and personal leadership. Any time I wasn’t sure what to do, I called Patrick. Time after time, he listened to my challenges and helped me reframe them so that I saw solutions. Sometimes he helped me realize that I already had the solution within me, but needed to summon the courage to act. 

Now that I am on the other side of the table, there are a few best practices I apply when mentoring entrepreneurs.

First, I want to understand entrepreneurs as people and their vision for the future. What are their personal stories? What are their professional track records? What are the problems and opportunities they see that others don’t? These are energizing conversations – most entrepreneurs are typically stuck in day-to-day firefighting mode, and when they get external input it is too often in the form of opinions on what they should or shouldn’t do. Having the opportunity to speak and be heard can be a moment to recharge. I have learned that effective mentorship requires understanding the “why” behind what entrepreneurs are building before giving advice.

Second, I want to understand today’s reality. Who are the business’ core customers? What is its customer value proposition? How has it been funded to date? How much cash runway is in the bank? Most often, the future is clearer than the present – entrepreneurs are experts at doing too many things because they underestimate how hard the things will be and how long they will take. Or they think they need to do everything at once in order to please investors, which just slows down progress. It can be a liberating conversation for entrepreneurs – who are naturally good at starting things – to realize that they can also cut what is non-essential and prioritize what is.

Third, I want to understand the business model. What are the unit economics? How will the company make money? When will it break even? This is almost always where the conversation drops off. Entrepreneurs are typically so busy doing everything they think needs to be done that figuring out how to make money is rarely a priority. In reality, it should be right near the top because without making money, most of those other things won’t matter for very long. And not knowing how to make money in an emerging market startup will make fundraising both a necessity and an almost impossible task. 

At the end of these conversations, I advise entrepreneurs to redo their slide decks to clarify their business narrative, along with creating a simple financial model driven by unit economics that is informed by actuals as much as possible. These are tangible outputs that serve as alignment tools for key stakeholders (including, but limited to investors), but the real value is created in the process of clarifying cluttered analytical models and plans.

For entrepreneurs, there are a few key principles you should follow to get the most value out of your mentors: 

  1. Don’t be scared to approach people who you want as mentors, but be sure to pitch them your vision. Good mentors are busy, so they want to engage with entrepreneurs who excite them and who they feel they can help.
  2. Be open and vulnerable so that your mentor can see you behind the facade. Be eager to listen and learn from your mentor’s experiences, to draw out the relevant lessons that apply to you.
  3. Take responsibility for setting up conversations and sharing information in advance. Mentorship should be demand-driven, and the more you engage, the more value you will get back.

Building a startup is hard, and quality mentorship can make it a little easier. With the right approach, mentorship can lead to long-lasting and mutually beneficial relationships that even extend beyond the life of a startup.

Mike Quinn Google Office Zoona
Mike Quinn with Patrick Pichette in his Google office in 2010.

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