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.


Facebook’s Re-Design: 10,000 Hours in Action

guerilla1I’ve never been much of a Facebooker and have, at times, been critical of past moves but today Facebook did something to be respected and applauded. Zuck & Co. just announced a brand new re-design of the heart of the platform, the news feed and also the next major area of the service, photos. The change will be rolling out the changes in a slow and controlled manner in order to measure response and effectiveness and whether these changes succeed or fail, time will tell but the cultural aspect of this move is what we need to understand. Facebook has over a Billion users  and it is re-vamping everything that matters. Why? Stay relevant, stay ahead, don’t get left behind.

How many companies can you think of that have the guts to reinvent themselves? Not the sugar-coating, lip service type re-invention but truly shake things up? Of that list, how many do it when they’re flying high not when they’re sliding or looking up from the gutter? I can’t think of one.

Necessity is a subjective term. Is it necessary for Facebook to change things up in order to make more money from advertising or keep users that are flocking to more visual products like Pinterest? Yes, definitely. At the other end of the spectrum, was it a necessity for Jack Welsh to bring Chrysler back from the gutter with the K-car. No one can argue otherwise. The difference it the amount of choice at the given time. Zuck and company could have waited until things were absolutely necessary but decided to do what winners do, keep battling even at the top of their game. That’s something to be admired and learned from.

In his amazing book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell notes that it takes 10,000 hours of doing something to achieve mastery. Also, those that are masters achieved the status by continuing to practice and pursue even after reaching success. Michael Jordan was constantly the first one at the gym and the last one to leave. Michael Jordan!

Never forget that together with passion and belief, what makes you successful is hard work, intelligence, and risk no matter if you’re a start-up or an 800-pound gorilla. If you’re a company that has lost its ability to make real change then the change around you will spell your end. Don’t hold on to what used to work in the past. It’s in the past.

We need to applaud those that keep that start-up culture and fortitude even when they’re now the 800-pounder. The Great Gretzky once said you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. Congrats to Facebook for still taking shots.

Start-Ups, Hockey, and What We Can Learn from Kadri

kadri-tampaThis past week I escaped the cold and took a trip with some friends to Florida; we followed the Toronto Maple Leafs on their swing to Miami  then Tampa and cheered on our hometown boy Nazem Kadri. I’ve known Naz since he was two years old and his family is like my own so I know all that he’s been through to get where he’s at now. It got me thinking, his road is not that different from the journey of our star tech companies. Promise, adversity, success. It doesn’t come easy.

Naz was selected 7th overall in the 2009 NHL Draft, a highly touted “offensive playmaker with hands of silk” is who the Leafs landed with their pick. Since he first put on skates he was a stand-out, the consummate all-star, and now a massive picture of him was hung at the Air Canada Centre even before training camp began. All the pressure was on. He was 19 and supposed to take on the world in the hotbed of hockey (for non-Hockey fans, the scrutiny and pressure playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs is like playing for the NY Yankees).  Success didn’t happen right away. Many believed he should have been playing in the NHL day one (myself included) but instead he spent 2009-2012 mostly with the Toronto Marlies, the Leaf’s development team, with only limited NHL time. He got stronger, got smarter, matured, and dealt with a massive amount of adversity.

In our industry we read, hear, and see young founders and companies touted as the next big thing all the time. They capture our attention and become mainstream seemingly overnight. How many aspiring entrepreneurs, who work to emulate that success take the time to understand and appreciate the back story of the companies like LinkedIn, Twitter, and even Apple? None of these companies hit it big day one, their success was years in the making and born of hard work. What we should put more emphasis on is the road to prosperity so that aspiring entrepreneurs can get a realistic picture of what to expect and how even the mighty were once the wanting. Twitter was born as a project inside a struggling company named Odeo. LinkedIn was founded in 1999 and took ten years to hit it big. Apple’s near bankruptcy is well documented and it was only until the iPod then the iPhone that the success story was born.

In Nazem’s case he kept his head down, stayed respectful, and worked hard to keep developing. Just like a start-up staying focused on the goal and working to make it happen. He changed some aspects of his game and got better; like when companies need to make a pivot. He heard all the pump and all the dump from the media in a hotbed of his industry (Toronto sports radio = Silicon Valley blogosphere).

Now, it’s all paying off. He’s not only playing for the Leafs, he’s leading the team in points. He has earned his success and he’s just getting started. He’s still only 22 years old.

To succeed you need to believe, work hard, and fight like hell. It doesn’t matter what you do, success doesn’t come easy. It all comes down to understanding that it’s not easy and having the fight in you to keep going to make it happen. Then, if/when things are going your way, to understand that you need to keep fighting to stay on top.

Naz has fight. He knows what it takes to succeed and he’s willing to take on anyone no matter how crazy it seems. Below is a video from the Tampa game we watched. Naz is the playmaker on the team not the fighter (6′ 0″ feet, 180 lbs) but check out the nasty cross check he takes to the back (at 0:03) from the biggest player on the other team (6′ 6″ and 230 lbs).

Naz, I’d rather see you using those hands to put pucks in the back of the net (see second video) and let the big boys throw the punches but like you said “you had to do what you had to do”. Proud of you buddy. Keep swinging.



Hands of silk…

Start-Up DNA: The Formula Behind Successful Start-ups

Yevgeniy Birkman has put together one of the most informative and interesting presentations on start-ups I’ve literally ever seen. There’s a lot of food for thought but what makes it special is that this is the view from someone who is in the trenches; a guy that is actually building everyday, not an investor, blogger, pundit, etc.  I’ve embedded it below, enjoy!

Thanks to big homie John Ruffolo (who you should follow) for the tweet helping me discover the slides.

Don’t Be Mr. Start-Up, Keep Coding.

Disclaimer: Don't know who this guy is but the pic works for the post. If this is you, sorry :)
Disclaimer: Don’t know who this guy is but the pic works for the post. If this is you, sorry 🙂

I can’t stand this guy:

– Start-up founder

– Company is funded by investors yet has no traction (or hasn’t even launched)

– Sitting in a First Class seat instead of coach…and thinks he deserves it. Which is why I can’t stand him.

Back when I started my first company I took a flight from Toronto to San Francisco. It was the first time I was going to visit Silicon Valley and I was excited. I met this guy while waiting to board the plane. I had recently seen his picture in the paper and a write-up on his startup; it was just getting started, hadn’t launched yet, but they did a story on it. This was 2007, a little before the “its cool to be a geek” world we live in now.

Being a fellow entrepreneur I introduced myself and said hello, thinking its cool that two Canadian kids are heading out to the Valley. He didn’t reciprocate much at all. Ok, no problem. When I boarded the plane I walked past him as he sat in business class, he looked up slightly and smirked. Figuring a plane wasn’t the right place to be keepin’ it real and let a fist fly, I let it pass but I wondered how this guy is in business class when his product hasn’t even launched.

Fast forward a year and his company is out of business. Squandered investor money, co-founders fighting, etc.

In recent years, I’ve seen this type of guy more than a few times. It’s the same guy talking big at conferences about the “success” of his company because they’ve raised money. He’s sometimes on a panel talking about all the great things his company is going to do, how they’re going to change the world…and even if any of it is true, it hasn’t happened yet and it’s the team back at the office coding all night to make it happen. Not him.

I can’t stand this guy because the two founders reading about him on tech blogs dream to be him while they work hard and hustle on their idea. They think he made it and for some reason a lot of others think so to even though all he’s doing is pissing away investor money and playing the hype. He’s an emperor with no clothes and he sets the wrong example for the true soldiers working on their dream.

It seems like this guy is everywhere. And it’s wrong.

Part of (actually, a lot of) the blame is the startup culture that’s been created in the past few years. It became more about showing up to every conference you can get into, in an obviously undersized t-shirt, scruffy, with your backpack with a Mac in tow and blabbing about your idea or critiquing the other guy’s. All talk. All show. No substance.

To the true entrepreneurs; those pouring their time, savings, frustrations and joys into what they hope will be a success: Keep going. Ignore the hype. Ignore what’s written about these so-called stars, their 15 minutes will soon pass. Keep coding and stay focused on your goals. Real success is when you’re giving your customers something they love, having fun doing it, and making good on all that you (and you’re investors if you have any) have bet on. It’s that moment when you look back and be truly proud of what you and your team nurtured from nothing into something special.

You’re either going to make it or you’re not. If you don’t it won’t be because you spent your time at conferences show-boating instead of working hard. If you make it then that first class seat is going to feel great because you earned all the leg room you deserve.

Keep coding and dreaming big. You guys are the true stars.