54 Hours. No Talk. All Action. 4 Lessons In Mentoring A Startup

This time last week, I was on my way to Manchester to attend my second ever Startup Weekend. And it was mind-bogglingly brilliant! At the first event I attended last month, I was a participant, working to create a market-beating product in just 54 hours. This time, my FreshMinds colleagues and I were invited back to be mentors, which was a whole different story. So what is a Startup Weekend mentor?

At every Startup Weekend there are several mentors. They have all volunteered to give up their time to guide and advise the teams of participants in their quest to develop a new product over the course of the weekend. All mentors bring a unique set of skills, experiences and an outside perspective.

Last month, my intrepid colleague Chris Leo posted a blog post on the lessons we’d learned as participants. So this month I thought I’d share the view from the other side of the fence and the lessons we learned as mentors.

1. Give advice, not ideas

If you’ve ever seen the film Inception, you’ll know how challenging it is to plant an idea in someone else’s mind. It’s the same with ideas for new products or businesses. The role of a mentor is to help shape and craft the existing ideas of others, not to come up with the ideas for them. Why? It ruins the fun and the creative process for the participants. They won’t truly believe in the idea you give them because it wasn’t theirs in the first place. See … exactly like Inception.

2. Uncover assumptions

Every idea for a new product or business is founded on a set of assumptions. These are hypotheses about how the world works and about how customers behave. It is a mentor’s job to listen carefully and ask probing questions to help uncover these assumptions. The dreaded “groupthink” phenomenon can mean that sometimes participants can fail to see that an idea they’re championing may be sitting on top of an assumption that could be glaringly flawed.

3. Gain clarity

One simple question: “So what is your idea?” In the frenzy of the weekend, teams can get lost in product features, user interfaces and revenue models. So when you ask a simple question like “what is your idea?”, the answer is usually complex at best, and crazy at worst. A mentor can bring clarity by helping teams distill down their idea into its most pure and compelling form.

The teams that form at Startup Weekend are usually strangers. So on top of developing a winning idea, they also need to learn how to work effectively together. With everyone trying to get along, the teams often avoid asking the tough questions that need answering to gain clarity. It’s a mentor’s job to pick apart the logic of the idea and ask questions like:

  • Do customers really care about that?
  • What’s in it for the customer?
  • How are you actually going to make money?

4. Inspire confidence

The most daunting yet exhilarating part of the weekend is the Sunday night pitch. Hackers, developers and designers tend not to be the most experienced public orators. Many teams are a bag of nerves.

As a mentor you can bring the energy and confidence that the participants can feed off. You can be their champion (impartial of course) and help them practise their pitch until it is honed into 5 minutes of stellar public speaking. How can you do this? By believing in their idea as much as they do.

These lessons are not just to applicable to Startup Weekend, they’re equally relevant to the world of insight-led innovation. Advising rather than instructing clients, uncovering rich insights, creating clarity and helping your team secure buy-in to their idea, are all vital components of any successful product launch, regardless of whether you’re working with a startup or a large corporate to make ideas a reality.

A massive thanks to Emily Kwan and Amalia Agathou from Techstars and my brilliant FreshMinds colleagues and co-mentors for making it all possible.