Earlier this week Mike Butcher posted this article on tech crunch about how to find the perfect startup mentor. It included some sound advice and featured quotes from many prominent and seasoned business people. Reading the listed qualities of a good mentor - practical, credible, a "do-er", vested - made me wonder if start ups aren't in need of mentors, but grown-ups.
The startup bubble is dominated by young, eager, talented entrepreneurs - people who look at the world they're inheriting and spot opportunities for change. But they are also woefully inexperienced and, perhaps even more tragic, surrounded by people who are equally inexperienced. Of course, there's a certain beauty to such innocence - a fearlessness and determination uninhibited by the doubt and mistrust of experience. Indeed, a recent study concluded that "founders under the age of 35 represent a significant proportion of founders in the billion-dollar club, and most likely the majority". But there's times when having a grown-up around can really stop a mole hill from turning into a mountain.
One of the key areas a grown-up can be most effective, especially I suspect in start ups, is with people. Just as we are taught to share our toys and play nicely with others at school, so we have to learn how to work well and collaboratively with others in the workplace. In traditional companies, hierarchy is the framework for this kind of education, where employees with long tenure and experience manage and support subordinates. Done well those juniors grow in skills, confidence and ability, ultimately becoming good managers themselves having been lead by example.
In a stereotypical startup, however, the founders will move quickly from a gang of friends with a shared vision to the Leadership function of a business - responsible not just for hiring and firing but for more subtle, interpersonal things as well. How can they possibly know how best to coach and nurture people when they've got no one doing it for them? And, for start ups, people and culture is by no means a nice to have. I can't count the number of VC posts I've read where they say that it's the number one consideration for investment.
Grown ups, mentors, call them what you will, no business can survive without them. They say it takes a village to raise a child, well the same goes for start ups - the elders may by old, they may be stuck in their ways, but they've seen it all before and are worth having around - if only for the odd cup of tea so the young 'uns can get on with running the world.