The Mentor Manifesto

I’ve been running Techstars for six years now. I’ve watched eleven batches of companies interact with hundreds of mentors. Because of that mentorship (focused on amazingly talented companies) we’ve seen those companies go on to raise about $100M in funding (averaging about $1M each post Techstars). In that time, I’ve witnessed thousands of mentor interactions, from some of the best entrepreneurs and investors on the planet. As a result, a while back, I wrote about the best ways for entrepreneurs to engage great mentors.

With this post I’m looking at the other side of the equation. What does it mean to be a great mentor? What mentor behaviors lead to great mentorship? What I’ve tried to capture here is essentially a set of mentor behaviors that seem to lead to the best results. When mentors do these things, relationships blossom and companies flourish. When they don’t, it’s often a struggle.

So, here’s what entrepreneurs can and should demand from their mentors. And here’s what mentors should consider if they want to build effective relationships with the entrepreneurs they’re working with. Rather than discuss each point, I thought I’d take a first crack at this “mentor manifesto” and let people react in the comments. Perhaps in the future I’ll dive into these behaviors, but for now I think they mostly speak for themselves.

The Mentor Manifesto

  • Be socratic.
  • Expect nothing in return (you’ll be delighted with what you do get back).
  • Be authentic / practice what you preach.
  • Be direct. Tell the truth, however hard.
  • Listen too.
  • The best mentor relationships eventually become two-way.
  • Be responsive.
  • Adopt at least one company every single year. Experience counts.
  • Clearly separate opinion from fact.
  • Hold information in confidence.
  • Clearly commit to mentor or do not. Either is fine.
  • Know what you don’t know. Say I don’t know when you don’t know. “I don’t know” is preferable to bravado.
  • Guide, don’t control. Teams must make their own decisions. Guide but never tell them what to do. Understand that it’s their company, not yours.
  • Accept and communicate with other mentors that get involved.
  • Be optimistic.
  • Provide specific actionable advice, don’t be vague.
  • Be challenging/robust but never destructive.
  • Have empathy. Remember that startups are hard.

Thanks to Jon Bradford and Brad Feld for helping me think about the Mentor Manifesto and for contributing ideas to it. Now I’d like to hear your ideas in the comments.

Ralph Dandrea does a nice job of restating this from a “beliefs and purpose” standpoint here.

file under: Blog, Startups

37 responses to “The Mentor Manifesto

  1. It’s not a hierarchy – respect the fact that mentor doesn’t mean superior. Far too often i see mentors act as if they are somehow above mentees. What mentors bring is an expertise the mentee doesn’t have. It doesn’t suggest mentor is somehow better, above or not equal to the mentee.

    I teach skiing and this past winter, Barry Dillar was a client. I can’t hold a candle to him in business but on the snow he needed me.

    Mentor-mentee doesn’t mean a hierarchy.

  2. Great article. One question I had is your point on committing to the relationship. How is a strong mentor/mentee relationship in fact strong if either party isn’t fully committed?

    Again, love the overall article. I think in many industries/companies, the mentor relationship is not leaned on enough.

  3. Just a note … your website looks horrible in my browser. I’m using Chrome (latest) on WindowsXP. Virtually all sites I visit look fine. Your site has no margin, especially on the left side. You might want to look into this because it’s a bit of a turn-off, because otherwise your site has some very good content. Good luck πŸ™‚

  4. Great post. But you missed one (or at least the one that I live by). “Expect more of out the founders than they expect out of themselves, and refused to be disappointed.”

  5. Sounds great…but how does one go about becoming a mentor to a start-up?

    Also, are mentors typically only on the business side, or do you also recommend start-ups work with experienced technical mentors?

  6. Hello,

    It seems that you are new here. On the Internet, “manifesto” and “the mentor” are not allowed to be used together in a title expects it’s related to “The hacker’s manifesto” by “The mentor”.

    So, stop your mentor-bullshit right nao and GTFO of our cyberspace.

  7. “Guide, don’t control ” and “Guide but never tell them what to do” seems to go against “Provide specific actionable advice, don’t be vague”. Isn’t doing the latter “telling what to do”?

  8. Well I was going to make a clever comment about the irony of the post name and the fact the the Hackers’ Manifesto was written by “The Mentor”, but it was going to be a lot more lighthearted than the one from the toolbox above…

    Anyways, great post. I’ve had a lot of mentors in entrepreneurship and many other things and I can honestly say this list is spot-on. I’ll also say that you have a great breeding ground for young entrepreneurs like myself when knowledgable, experienced people with these qualities come together to mentor in groups. Thanks for giving back.

  9. Well constructed, good to see you teaching the teachers πŸ™‚
    100M at an average of 1… not bad, we are looking to add a couple zeroes onto that when we talk πŸ™‚

  10. Great stuff, David. A few things to add:

    1. It’s important to know *when* to give “specific, actionable advice”, especially if one is to “be Socratic”. The two actions can be contradictory.

    2. Reflect on your mentoring to get better.

    3. Encourage your proteges to mentor however young/inexperienced they are (might be the best gift you can give).

    4. Don’t take it personally when (not if) they don’t heed your guidance.

  11. david

    Nice creed to go by. you must have a ton of solid perspectives on securing the best of breed out there. also a few other thoughts:

    –be passionate about the team and the company
    –mentors dont have all of the answers and should be constantly learning themselves on how to maximize their value to entrepreneurs…
    –do the 360 evaluation on mentors as well, as with the emergence and maturation of a start up—mentors might need to change, based on the needs of the company.

    hope to catch up soon

  12. Great post! I agree that socratic questioning is crucial but has also has the potential to conflict with specific advice. Knowing when to give direct advice is a big deal — try to avoid solving the equation yourself and teach the math instead.

  13. Thank you, David, for the thoughtful post. The piece I would add is related to the “two-way” relationship.

    – Expect to learn from your mentees and show them the same gratitude they show you when you help them understanding something new.

    – Don’t neglect the difficult personal aspects of being a startup entrepreneur. Starts are freakin hard and if you’ve been through tough times don’t be afraid to share that with them — and don’t sugar coat it.

  14. I’m working on building an online mentoring network, so it’s awesome to hear your perspective dealing with these amazing mentors. By now, I’m sure you have weeded out the mentors you don’t want to work with, which makes the TechStars mentors even more elite.

    I’m just wondering how receptive the mentors are to this advice. When you say entrepreneurs should demand this, I agree and think it helps promote the two way relationship of mentoring. But there is also a fine line that young entrepreneurs have to walk when demanding things from these mentors.

    Great stuff.

  15. Five more for the mix:

    1. Beware of a tendency to presume to know your mentees business better than they do: You don’t
    2. The way you have tackled problems, in the past, is not necessarily the way a mentee should tackle, what you may think is, a similar problem
    3. If you don’t like each other back off: It happens sometimes, so just both move on
    4. Be generous in connecting mentees with your network
    5. Ask open questions


  16. I think the question should be “Who is qualified to be Mentor?” rather than “How to be good Mentor” because many incubators are filled with folks that barely have any qualification to be a mentor.

    1. while i agree that the quality of mentors varies in some of the programs out there, i do have a strong belief that everyone can and should be a mentor about something to someone.

      1. Totally agree! and great post David.

        I see mentors like personal trainers at the gym. They are there to point out the not so obvious errors in your approach (they say it how it is) and share relevant stories (the how-to’s) that are applicable to your situation.

        A β€œgreat” mentor is someone who can tell stories in a way which makes people stop and listen. Those types we call leaders, because they have the power to make people stop, listen and get inspired. Just like in the old days when man sat around campfire listening to one tell stories.

        We are all storytellers. Its just that some have more to share because of the choices they made early on in their life. But this shouldn’t stop anyone from sharing what they know or have learnt with those that are at the start of their journey.

  17. Dear David, Thanks for this Manifesto. One thing that is extremely important to add to this manifesto is how to deal with ideas and the ownership of intellectual property that arises from the types of interaction like for instance, Start-Up Weekend, Start-Up Bootcamp etc. All too often we see that there are many people who do not come with good intentions, leaving the initial contributors high and dry.

  18. Thanks for sharing this manifesto, David! Another effective mentoring technique I’ve discovered is to share short stories from my experiences rather than giving more abstract advice or opinions. The stories should be directly related to the mentee’s question or challenge, of course.

  19. Makes a lot of sense, and one question that comes up all the time is…what’s the difference between mentoring, coaching, training etc….Someone explained it to me thus:- supervising works at the ‘behavioral’ level. Training impacts ‘skill/competence’. Coaching impacts ‘beliefs/values’. Mentoring impacts ‘identity’. This relates to the NLP (no – NOT natural language programing but neuro linguistic programing !!) model of neurological levels. Its a great way to spot that so called mentors are often really ‘supervisors’ ‘trainers’ or ‘coaches’. Subtle and important !

  20. Good post. I’d add that great mentors also share their own failures and shortcomings. Admittedly, that’s not always an easy thing to do, but sometimes the greatest lessons lie in mistakes. And that goes hand in hand with modeling good entrepreneurial behavior: passion, drive, commitment, honesty, for your mentee.

    1. excellent point. we learn more from failure than from success, generally speaking. so those of us with failure can share many lessons.

  21. Very useful list David.

    I also think that mentors should assess what the startup’s needs really are, and if they have the experience and enthusiasm to guide the founders on those areas. Often mentors accept requests to mentor startups that are in the sector/domain of their expertise & experience. And while experience in a particular domain is useful, the gaps in the startups competencies, and therefore their specific needs, may be outside the mentor’s core competence.

    Also, I have observed that when someone is a mentor to the founders (as different from mentoring the startup), the contribution from the mentor has even greater impact. (For example, supporting the entrepreneur when things are not going well, being a supporting figure when the company is shutting down, and reinforcing confidence in the person can often be very helpful in encouraging the team to take another shot at entrepreneurship.).

  22. I would add “agree to meet regularly” to the list. With most mentors having their own job I think agreeing on a meeting cycle early on helps a lot, in particular as advice as mentors better understand the company, its space and the opportunity.

  23. Great list.
    Regarding prioritization, I would suggest starting out with ‘Contribute in passion’.

    In my mind, it encompasses the #Givefirst concept, which is inspiring.
    Contribution also means it helped, so it connects to ‘we know how to help. We will help. We do help. We contribute.’

    And passion is naturally very important and besides the obvious reasons, it is critical to show entrepreneuers you mentor, the passion that they should have. This is leadership and role modeling, in effect, about being passionate. So they can immitate (if needed) and take that energy to their own startup creation and business.

    I would also argue that being socratic is a great concept, and it works, too (mostly). However, it is not THE first thing that makes Techstarts special, IMHO. Giving first is, at least more than being socratic.
    So is being passionate. About helping to improve.

    So I would start out with ‘Contribute in passion’
    ‘Contribute in true passion’
    Or the like (you get my point… πŸ™‚

    Thanks for listening.

    Great work! Kudos!!

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