Hey Mr. Entrepreneur, What Is the Value

Ajeet Khurana

The start-up scene has really heated up in India in the past few years. Here are some of the causes:

• The Rs. 20K per month software job is no longer attractive to engineers.

• Many twenty-somethings have managed to raise funding from angels and VCs. This has encouraged many others to believe that   such funding may be possible for them too.

• Many start-up organizations – TiE, NASSCOM, NEN among others – have got into an overdrive and are churning out frequent  events.

• The emergence of the micro-VC has led to funding being available much sooner in the lifecycle of start-ups.

Not All the Freshly Minted Entrepreneurs Are Ready For Entrepreneurship

Incubators, leadership programs, start-up weekends and the like have done a good job in handholding entrepreneurs, but many entrepreneurs still find themselves lost at sea. Sometimes they are stumped by day-to-day operational challenges, at other times they just cannot seem to land that elusive first customer. Without experience, even decisions on pricing and hiring may seem formidable – not to mention the frustrations when dealing with co-founder conflicts.

This Is Where the Mentor Makes a Grand Entry

I think there has been a disproportionate increase in the number of start-up mentors in India – even when compared to the increase in the number of entrepreneurs themselves. This mentor, the knight in shining armor is the ultimate jack-of-all-trades. An entrepreneur consults her / his mentor for just about anything. Oddly enough, most mentors seem to have an opinion on absolutely every single issue. And it does not take much to be a mentor. Anyone with a decade or more of any kind of work experience can position themselves as a mentor.

LinkedIn has 800K mentors and 500K Entrepreneurs

To explore how far this wave of mentorship has spread, I performed two basic searches in LinkedIn. While "entrepreneur" has 554,202 results, "mentor" has 848,821 results. Surely there is something wrong with this picture. I have been a mentor since 1998, and can easily mentor half a dozen entrepreneurs simultaneously. For there to be more mentors than entrepreneurs is bizarre. Even though comparing the number of the results in LinkedIn searches is not the most scientific approach, there is no doubt that there are just too many mentors.

There Are Great Mentors Out There, They Have Just Become Tougher to Find

When I move in start-up circles I come across many mentors. A common trait among mentors is that they seem to have pretty impressive communication skills. This skill is so prevalent that one could be misled into believing that impressive speech was a prerequisite for mentors. In fact, the large number of jargon-spouting, impressive speaking mentors has made it tough to locate the mentors that provide "real" value. But they do exist, and I keep running into them every day.

What Should Entrepreneurs Expect From Their Mentors

At a basic level, a true mentor is genuinely concerned about the welfare of your venture. Though great mentors tend to be friendly and affable, they do not shy from calling a spade a spade when needed. Also, most mentors tend to have a broad spectrum of capabilities, but, naturally, there are areas where they are not experts. And when you need help in those areas, they do not hesitate to inform you that they are not the best resource for the query. They might be able to point you to someone who is an expert.

It is impossible to define rigidly the scope of mentorship for early stage ventures. If clear job-descriptions were possible, there would have been an army of management consultants for start-ups. The reason mentors are invaluable for start-ups is that they can be the entrepreneur's companions as each layer of the entrepreneurial onion is peeled, and reveals challenges in new flavors. Having said that, "I will help you with everything," is too unrealistic a slogan for any mentor.

How Do You Reward a Mentor?

There are many reward structures that can be set up for mentors. Whatever seems to work between the entrepreneur and the mentor is the best arrangement. Here are some rewards I have seen mentors enjoy:

• The sheer satisfaction of helping out an early stage entrepreneur. Sometimes, mentors are passing it forward, as someone had  mentored them too in their early stages of entrepreneurship.

• Cash. Cold, hard, cash can also be a reward for mentors. It is not too common, as few start-ups can afford any serious cash  reward. Some go with out-of-pocket expenses plus a small honorarium.

• Stock and stock-options. This is an interesting reward for mentors as it aligns their interest with that of the start-up. It also takes  mentoring beyond a casual, once-in-a-while, coffee shop meeting. Of course, the entrepreneur and the mentor are going to miss  any semblance of reasonable valuation by a mile. But that is ok. If there is a stock reward, it is best to come up with a vesting  period so that there is no immediate remorse.

All in all, mentors can be the best of companions, or the worst of companions for an entrepreneur. Find someone solid. Someone who seems to get you, as well as the basic ingredients of your venture. Someone you can trust. Someone who can open doors for you. And when you find this great mentor, stick to them – you will significantly improve the likelihood of your success.

~ Ajeet Khurana mentors start-ups. An angel investor, trainer, author, entrepreneur and digital marketer, he is a member of the screening committee of Mumbai Angels, one of India's oldest angel networks. In addition, he is a trainer for new angel investors with NEN (National Entrepreneurship Network). He is on the boards of Carve Niche Technologies and Rolocule Games, You can reach him on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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