Solving problems is why businesses exist. In June of 2009, I recognized a big problem in my community, predicated by the early-stage venture firm I worked for making the decision to move to later-stage investments. It was a common theme at the time, and it scared me. For a culture of innovation and business growth to exist, the entire ecosystem must be in place. The problem was more than just early-stage tech funding; it was also the lack of resources for first-time entrepreneurs. I experienced the problem firsthand, as I started two companies and consulted for a number of startups before entering the venture capital world.
Luckily I met someone who was also passionate about solving the problem. My partner, Jon Feld, helped me start the seed startup accelerator called Tech Wildcatters. We dug in and approached local successful entrepreneurs about investing in, and mentoring, young tech entrepreneurs. Our first class “graduated” last summer at Pitch Day, where over 300 investors and potential customers gathered to hear about the companies. Two have since received Series A venture funding, two more raised angel capital from the mentors and the fifth is bootstrapping for now.
The Tech Wildcatters 12-week accelerator program begins with our founder teams reaching out and developing multiple mentor relationships within the first few weeks. Initially, this can result in the feared "Mentor Whiplash,” where the founders get conflicting advice and worry deeply about their next steps, or about somehow offending a mentor. Our thesis is this: Mentor Whiplash is a healthy process, making each team more firmly grounded at the conclusion of the program.
Mentor Whiplash is the tech startup version of syntopical reading, says Tech Wildcatters partner John Reed, where instead of reading the 50 or so "Great Books of the Western World" cover to cover, readers identify core concepts like the definition of "liberty" and research what a dozen or so respected thinkers' viewpoints are on the topic. The viewpoints don't agree, and that's the point. The viewpoints can be compared, identifying differences and common elements, and at the end the reader has a viewpoint on liberty based on an understanding of the topic that is unique and their own.
Tech Wildcatters leaves its founder teams open to syntopical mentoring. If a team is searching for an answer to its sales channel issues, mentors that have built sales teams, or leveraged independent channels, or created strategic relationships, or bundled technology, are available to listen and give perspective. Mentors will offer up approaches that have worked for them, and identify circumstances where they have used each approach. They will not always agree with each other, but all of them are right. So at the end of the process, if the teams have been thinking and asking questions, they will decide on a strategy based on a fuller understanding of their options and be able to defend that decision. The syntopical process is messier than just handing out an answer, but it develops teams that are more grounded in their strategy and closer to their mentor community.
Memory Reel Inc. founder Nikhil Nilakantan likens managing mentor recommendations to managing customer recommendations. “Everyone has an opinion, and that tends to be especially true with your customers,” he says. “It’s common to get very different suggestions and feature requests from people who use your product. The true skill of a great product team is the ability to sift through all the feedback, spot patterns and balance those patterns against the other needs and goals of the business. The same principle applies to dealing with Mentor Whiplash. Feedback is very useful, but following it blindly is probably worse than not getting any feedback at all.”
Which brings us to a final point—something Nicole Glaros of TechStars calls “closing the feedback loop.” No matter what decision you make about the advice you are given, the best entrepreneurs will always follow up and communicate that decision with their mentor. Mentors are there to guide you and if they feel like you don’t need or appreciate their guidance, they won’t continue providing it. They may also be able to help further by making other introductions or helping with the new plan. They can’t do any of this if you don’t communicate with them though.
So go out and recruit some mentors who have “been there, done that,” don’t be afraid to receive multiple points of view and be confident enough in your vision to synthesize the information, make a well-informed decision and close the feedback loop with your mentor.
Gabriella Draney is Co-founder and Managing Partner of Tech Wildcatters. Most recently she was with HP Growth Partners, an early-stage venture fund in Dallas. She co-founded an aircraft scheduling software company in 1998 that ended in a profitable exit. She went on to work for Morgan Stanley in private wealth management. True to her entrepreneurial roots, she left to follow her passion for nutrition by opening a specialty foods retail store, and simultaneously spent three years consulting with numerous Dallas-based startups on strategic planning and finance.