How To Engage with a Would-Be Mentor

Helping-MentorPeople that start companies are not normal. Some say you need to be a little bit crazy. Depleting your life savings, begging for money and advice, working all day and night chasing a dream that maybe only you understand. Indeed, those that change the world are the ones with the guts to step outside what is normal and go after what others think is impossible. I believe all of that to be true. I also believe entrepreneurs need to know that your idea might be the most important thing to you but it’s not number one of the other guy’s list.

Starting a company means first being crazy excited about an idea, finding others that share that excitement, and all involved having the passion and willingness to execute and make it happen. Along the way its important to gain valuable perspective from mentors that have been there before or have a broader or deeper view with insight to offer. A typical mentor also has their own day-to-day job and might be mentoring and involved with multiple companies. First time entrepreneurs sometimes need to learn how to engage with those that are there to help, balancing their asks with the realization that the person they want advice from usually is willing to help many others while also balancing their own work duties.

How to Engage with a Would-be Mentor

This is more about how you first get connected with a perspective mentor. You goal might be to build a mentor network but ultimately the quality of the person’s advice and perspective as well as mutual interest will determine whether you want them involved or not. There are a few things to keep in mind when first trying to connect with people for advice:

1. Get introduced by someone the person knows

2. Send the person an email with a SHORT summary of what you’re doing and asking if they have some time for a quick chat

3. Wait…then wait some more

You’re company is the most important thing to you at every minute of the day and it should be. Recognize that your company is not number one on a perspective mentor’s to-do list (maybe it will be one day but not at first intro). If you’re getting introduced (email intro or otherwise) then the person will likely get back to you asap since if they don’t want to look like they don’t appreciate that their colleague provided the intro. It is in some respects an obligatory act to follow-up in order to show respect to the colleague that provided the intro. Plus, people usually don’t send intros to companies they don’t think might have some value or be interesting.

5. If a few days go by and you don’t get a response you can try a very polite follow-up email. You could also let the person that provided the intro know that you haven’t received a response, they may know a reason (the mentor is travelling, ill, etc.).

6. If you still don’t get a response then move on. The person isn’t interested and is too high and mighty to respect the colleague’s intro by at least sending you a response explaining why it might not be the right time to connect. Not the type of mentor you want.

7. When you get a response make sure to keep your email messages short. Be prepared to share some information on what you’re up to and ask to have a quick chat. Even five minutes on the phone is better than 10 emails back and forth. Even better, ask if you can meet for a coffee. If I find a company interesting I’ll almost always meet for a coffee to learn more (even if I don’t like the idea I’ll still meet if I think the entrepreneur is interesting).

All of the above is if you had an intro. If you cold call, cold email, cold LinkedIn message, cold tweet, etc. Then if you get a response you’re lucky. Why?

Follow-up priority

1. Companies I’ve met myself and are interested in

2. Companies that a good colleague has provided an intro too

3. Companies that I find myself and want to reach out to get to know more about (and therefore find a colleague that can provide an intro)

4. Companies I meet and may/may not be interested in (at a conference or event and was pushed a business card)

5. Companies that cold call, cold email, cold tweet without context

That’s the priority of interest and therefore response. That being said, seek out the mentors you want and cold LinkedIn message them. Just don’t harass them. Give them a quick and compelling summary of what you’re up to, if they’re interested they’ll respond. If they don’t respond it means they can’t help. I’ve connected with a mentor this way and never heard back from others that I tried to connect with. It doesn’t matter, throw your darts and see what hits. Just don’t harass.

What Not to Do

1. Never harass someone because they aren’t getting back to you according to your timeline. Valid or not, there are reasons you’re not getting a response; they’re busy with priority things at work, they’re travelling, they still need to think of their response, etc. You’ll get a response, and if you don’t then leave it alone and move on.

2. Attempt to get in touch through Twitter because you didn’t get an email back (or vice versa). You could follow-up and email with a polite tweet, that’s fine but don’t use a new form of communication just to harass. It’s not the impression you want to give.

3. Bad mouth the person to others. Whether the mentor got back to you and can’t help or never got back to you, take it all in stride. It’s a small world and it’s always better to not say anything than bring others down. Stay focused on your mission and move on connecting with others that can add value.

So build the best network you can filled with mentors that can add valuable perspective on what you’re trying to accomplish. Understand that quality mentors will connect with you if they feel they can add value and if they have the time. At the very least they should respond with a reason why they may not be helpful, if no other reason than to be polite (unless you’ve cold messaged them something absurd). Be crazy enough to follow your dream just don’t drive yourself crazy if sometimes others don’t share your dream or can’t contribute to it whether you want them to or not.