August 20, 2014
Advisors vs Mentors and Coaches. Every Founder Should Have Them

I was fortunate to be invited to the MIT Media Lab this week, to speak to and spend time with, a group of students, entrepreneurs and senior executives working in advanced imaging areas. It was a fantastic event and I met some very interesting new people + ideas. There was so much learning for everyone. People pitching new ideas, new mathematics in imaging, new applications of imaging in connectivity, productivity, health, and everyone open to discussing how to succeed at the nexus of technology, design, and business.

After my talk on startup activity in the imaging space, and why it was not an easy space to build companies in, somebody asked about the role of advisors in a startup. And who should be asked to join as advisors to help entrepreneurs from falling into familiar traps. A lively discussion ensued as clearly it was a topic on a lot of people’s mind.

We discussed that young startups, and especially first-time entrepreneurs, should be very careful in choosing advisors. This is not an opportunity to list all your favorite people on a PowerPoint slide. Most advisors unfortunately don’t contextualize their advice, and others carry hammers where everything looks like a nail to them. An advisor’s advice is one person’s opinion, often heavily influenced by their own (limited) experiences. Some advice can be outright dangerous. That said, the right advisors at the right time can be super helpful.

I shared two other thoughts that often come to my mind when I think of advice for less experienced entrepreneurs:

(1) Many startups list lots of advisors to artificially demonstrate credibility in front of investors and customers. Be careful not to overpopulate such lists, or add frivolous people. Not only are people familiar with this tactic and hence it could backfire, it can also create a clusterfuck of ideas in your mind if everyone’s POV is considered. For every advisor, there should be at least one topic that you consider critical to success of your company that you would really want advice from them. If you cannot assign at least one such topic to each advisor, you are doing it wrong.

(2) Rather than generalist advisors, founders should ideas look for and recruit mentors. Advisors can be dime-a-dozen, mentors are not. People sometimes easily agree to being called an advisor to an early stage company (without really contributing much in that role) but they tend to be more guarded and thoughtful before accepting to be a mentor. Mentorship involves building of significant trust, it’s a personal relationship, and it involves a much more significant investment of time/effort and over an extended period of time. I believe everyone should have a mentor…and it’s a relationship that helps one be introspective, grow, and build over time.

Two additional int’g sub-topics came up as we discussed mentors for early stage founders:

(1) several people I spoke to at the MIT Media Lab were senior executives at companies. Some of them mentioned that they feel having a ‘mentor’ vs an ‘advisor’ could signify to others a level of inferiority or lack of seniority in the team. I tried to explain my POV that I wasn’t concerned about semantics…my point was to highlight a difference in relationship. Advisors can give passer-by advice…they sometimes do, and sometimes don’t, contextualize advice to your startup, your personality, and your personal struggles as a founder. Advisors tend to share best practices, but I wish there was a recipe cook book on how to deal with startup challenges. There isn’t. A mentor on the other hand invests time in understanding you. He/she believes in you and wants you to succeed, irrespective of the particular startup you are with at that time. Mentors share their experience but also spend energy trying to understand how your experiences might be shaping the struggles you are facing personally or professionally. I think simply stated, mentors care more than advisors, and I like people who care more about founders.

(2) I found myself mixing the words mentors and coaches when I spoke and realized later there is a big difference. And I think founders need both. Mentors are people founders look up to as role models. Mentors are often in a position to say “if I was in your shoes, this is what I may have done”, because often they have been in such situations before. Mentors can sort of stand in your shoes. Coaches on the other hand are not that. They are smart, thoughtful, high IQ and EQ people who help you figure out your own strengths and weaknesses, and find your own particular solution to the problem you share with them. They are like the basketball coaches of NBA players (who are often much shorter than the players) who have never stood in such big shoes but they help players find the best in them to compete at the highest levels. Coaches are professionals. And one may not look up to the coach, but a good coach is deeply deeply respected.

I am deeply thankful for all the people who have given me advice in the past, and continue to do so. I am also thankful to all the people who hVe provided advice to my portfolio companies, their founders and CEOs. And I am thankful for the few that have agreed to be my mentors and coaches because it would be really hard to learn to be better without you.

Bilal Zuberi is a Partner at Lux Capital. You can find this and related posts on his blog and follow him on Twitter @bznotes.

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