Techstars is a mentorship-driven accelerator. Our model is to help accelerate startups and help founders go faster by connecting them to world-class mentors—founders, experienced entrepreneurs, executives, and investors.
At the beginning of each Techstars NYC program, we setup a so-called Mentor Week, a set of quick discovery meetings to figure out which mentors would be most helpful to which company.
Getting the most out of initial meetings and mentor engagement is critical. Founders that engage mentors deeply set themselves up for success during the program.
Here is how to get the most out of YOUR mentor meetings.
One of the biggest mistakes a founder can make is to not prepare for mentor meetings.
If you just show up without being ready, without having clear pitch, without researching mentors, without having good asks, you are going to waste both your time and the mentor’s time.
Prepare by reviewing materials you are given, thinking through what you really want to get out of the meetings, practicing your pitch, and learning more about each mentor in advance.
2. Research Each Mentor Before the Meeting
In general, we teach founders to be meeting nerds and spend a lot of time on people’s LinkedIn, Twitter, and AngelList profiles. By just putting in a little bit of effort and figuring out more about a mentor’s background you can make your mentor meetings more effective.
Start by researching their background on LinkedIn—where do they work now? Where did they work before? Review their entire work history. Think about asks and what they can help you with—sales? marketing? product? engineering? Review their industries and connections—who can they potentially introduce you to? Maybe a mentor can introduce you to potential customers, someone else can introduce you potential investors, etc.
Where do they live now? Where did they grow up? Where did they go to school? Finding common touch points is always a great ice breaker. Review the organizations and other things that the mentor has listed on their profile; a great way to enter the conversation.
Next, head over to the mentor’s Twitter account. What can you gather from their recent tweets? What are they into? Be sure to check to help avoid awkward political comments and other things that can be potentially offensive to them.
See if there is a potential conflict. If a mentor is working for a competitor or there is something else that makes you uncomfortable, ask to opt-out of the meeting. Meetings are a two-way street—if for whatever reason you don’t want to meet this particular mentor, you don’t have to. Just raise your hand and opt-out. It is on you to figure out if there is a potential conflict or you don’t think the mentor will be helpful.
Use every bit of information available on the internet about a mentor to your advantage. The same exact strategy works for investors too.
3. Lean in and Engage
Don’t be low energy. Lean in and give it your all. Be warm and excited. If you aren’t excited about the meeting, why would a mentor be excited? Your level of energy and engagement is going to signal to the mentor the state of your company, your mind, and your interest in them.
Be warm when you walk in. Smile, offer a handshake if appropriate, and make direct eye contact. Maintain a high energy level and lean-in regardless of whether you think the mentor will ultimately be helpful or not. First of all, you are making an impression and building your personal brand. Secondly, you just really never know. There are tons of examples of serendipitous, out-of-left-field connections and help you can get from a mentor whom you initially thought would not be helpful.
4. Have an AWESOME pitch
Always, always, always start with your elevator pitch. Even if the mentor says they know what you do, give an elevator pitch. Introduce yourself and your company. Explain quickly the problem you are solving, why YOU are doing this, and what you do. Mention your background and the traction you’ve achieved to date.
The elevator pitch is meant to be a summary; a way to grab the mentor’s attention and an invitation to a bigger conversation.
5. Explain the Details
After the elevator pitch, quickly go deeper on things that matter / common questions mentors would want to know. What problem you are solving for customers? What is unique about what you are doing? Why are you different? Give more details on things that really matter.
Avoid talking about your background and company chronologically. This wastes a lot of time. Use the Pyramid principle and explain what matters first. Then, let the mentor ask you questions. Each one of them will be interested in different things and that’s totally fine—let them choose their own path to understanding your business.
6. Give a Quick Demo
Do you have a working product, a prototype, or a sketch? Show, don’t tell. A quick demo can be really powerful and help save a lot of time. By showing a demo to a mentor you are eliminating guesswork on their part and you will have another chance to explain what exactly are you doing and what is different about it.
7. Ask Specific Questions
This is the key part of a mentor meeting—prepare 2-3 questions that are specific to each mentor. Don’t just have them react to your pitch, know what to ask.
Are you looking for help with sales? Marketing? Hiring? Go to market? Distribution? Industry connections? Whatever it is, just get straight to it and engage the mentor around topics that are important to you.
8. Take Notes
Be ready to take notes. Obviously, mentors have a ton of great insights. Write down things that jump at you. Mentors love when you write things down. But don’t write down everything, as it will take up a lot of time and will impact your ability to connect with the mentor during the conversation.
If the mentor is okay with it, consider recording the conversation. This is particularly handy because you can go back and revisit exactly what they said.
Look for patterns and for unique, non-obvious advice. Patterns will be clear after you meet with several mentors, but also pay attention to feedback that appears to be unusual and counterintuitive.
9. Wrap up
Be conscious of time, and make sure to wrap up properly. Sum up the meeting and create follow-up actions. For example, if the mentor said they will make introductions for you, reflect back to confirm.
Ask if it is okay to follow up with them, and do another session on a specific topic they said they can help with. Ask if it is okay to connect with them on LinkedIn.
Summarize, confirm, and be sure to capture all the follow-up items.
10. Follow Up
Without exception, always send a follow-up note to each mentor.
At the very least, just thank them for the meeting. If there are follow-up items, include them. For all the introductions that mentor promised, send forwardable intro emails.
If you want to meet again, suggest the next meeting. Follow up is part of the test of how engaged the mentor is going to be. If the mentor is replying quickly, making introductions, and answering your questions, these are indicators that they are really interested in what you are doing and are willing to help.
If the mentor is okay with it, connect with them on LinkedIn—you are instantly expanding your network with just this one connection. Feel free to follow the mentor on Twitter—they always like it when you do that.
Connecting with the mentor right away allows you to leverage them and their network now, and more importantly, in the future. You get to reach out to them with asks for introductions for business deals and potential investors.
12. Engage more with helpful mentors
If your first meeting with the mentor went really well, ask for the follow up and keep engaging them.
Understand how this specific mentor wants to be engaged and keep using this specific medium. Some mentors are great via email. Some would prefer to do a Google hangout or a coffee meeting. Some will come to you and some will ask for you to come to their office. Ask them what works for them.
If after the second meeting both you and the mentor are leaning in, ask if the mentor would be open to meet / engage a few more times in coming weeks. Don’t be offended if they decline—sometimes mentors are just too busy.
If they agree, add them to your mentor updates list. Engage each mentor deeply. Keep them posted regularly, be sure to continue specific asks, and focus on building a relationship.
You don’t need to have dozens and dozens of mentors. Instead, focus on finding 3-7 who are going to deeply engage with you and help you build your business. If you succeed in finding these mentors, they will help you go faster and you will have a massive advantage compared to other founders.
Image credit: CC by Embajada de los Estados Unidos en Uruguay