Lessons I’ve Learned Mentoring and Co-Founding Successful Startups

As a Mentor at Virgin Startup and Co-founder of a Product & Software Development Agency, I’m often asked what it takes to build a successful startup. For me, one of the more important aspects is less about the ‘what’ and more about the ‘who’.

Having the right people by your side will benefit you in all situations. When the chips are down and you are facing, what feels like, countless barriers they will give you the support you need to succeed.

Conversely, when you are already succeeding they will give you the right tools to grow and expand your business. The right people, in my opinion, all have one thing in common. Something I like to call a mentorship-driven attitude.  

A mentorship-driven attitude embodies someone who facilitates your thinking – without telling you what to do. Someone who nurtures a working relationship based on trust, sensitivity, confidentiality and mutual respect.

It may be a co-founder, software development agency/consultant, or a mentor in the more literal sense – maybe from an accelerator like Virgin Startup. So here’s how to identify that all-important mentorship-driven attitude.

Identifying a Great Mentor or Co-Founder

Great Mentors and Co-founders come in many shapes in sizes. Sometimes it’s impossible to quantify why they are great. 

However, there are some behaviours that will help you separate the what from the chaff:  

  1. Help to focus on priorities. A talented partner will be able to direct you on what matters the most.
  2. Honest and transparent feedback on past experiences – both successes and failures.
  3. Help to prevent the obvious – and not so obvious – mistakes.
  4. Money-free and unconflicted suggestions – with no hidden agendas. ‘ROIs’ must be aligned and both sides need to be committed to making the product/service a success. With more focus placed on long term goals rather than the short term.
  5. To learn new skills and help to improve existing ones whilst increasing your capabilities and knowledge.
  6. To gain meaningful connections – a definite plus. In the ideal world, they’ll be able to introduce you to an established network that could help you grow your business.
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How to Identify a Great External Partner

As well as the technical and managerial elements – described in this article – there is plenty more to consider when looking for an external collaborator (whether it’s a Software Development Agency – or any form of outsourcing).

Here’s my guide to the key points:

  1. A fast understanding of your main challenges: an experienced collaborator immediately recognises the areas where you need the most help. It’s important to remember that you’ll be paying for this. The faster your challenges are sorted out, the more profitable your investment will be.
  2. An unbiased and transparent relationship: be aware that economic interests might undermine the relationship. Sometimes your collaborator might only have a short-term vision – and it may conflict with your longer-term plan.
  3. Someone who is trustworthy: building trust is the first step in your working relationship. An honest and open relationship is essential. They should bring their knowledge and expertise to the table, but also be open about their weaknesses. Avoid someone who passes you on to a ‘key account manager’ and not to the team that will be directly working on your project. Great collaborators open doors, introduce you to the team you’ll be working with and provide their vision, process and structure. Don’t be afraid to assert yourself – you’re not there to be dictated to. Find someone who wants success as much as you do.
  4. An ability to listen, to say ‘no’ and question your problems: jumping to quick conclusions rarely works. As well as being able to express your ideas and plans, you must be able to accept constructive criticism. A collaborator who always says ‘yes’ is dangerous – their interest might be to close an agreement as soon as possible for a short-term gain.
  5. The ability to invest time on your project without pushing to close a sales agreement asap. A great collaborator understands good clients come on board because of the knowledge they can offer. They must be able to explain the steps that are needed to move your business forward, even if the advice goes against your initial thoughts – but also they might go against the collaborator’s best interest. For example, a consultant may advise you to do additional research before moving into a commercial agreement – while doing so will obviously delay the signing of a contract, it’s a positive sign they’re looking and thinking of a long term relationship.

Related: Founder’s Guide: How to Outsource Software Development in 2020

And Finally …

In the early stages of your startup, your investment in time and money should be as precise and accurate as possible. Concentrate on what you’re good at and look for mentors, co-founders and or collaborators who will be able to bring real value and help in your weaker areas.

If you choose the right people you’ll quickly see that they will become a part of your extended work team, with your best interests at heart. They will be there to act as your wise and trusted advisor, just like Mentor was with Telemachus.