Changing a life in seven minutes—that was the challenge South by Southwest V2Venture (SXSW V2V) issued to a group of small-business owners, entrepreneurs and established professionals.
Each mentor had one hour to help or otherwise impact the people who had signed up to talk to us at the four-day SXSW V2V in Las Vegas, the first strictly entrepreneur-focused event put on by the SXSW Interactive Festival.
Not being a consultant in search of new clients, my goal was solely to help someone advance his or her business—to somehow help them scale. But I worried about actually being able to do this in seven minutes. After all, it takes me longer than that to dry my hair. Yet Kathryn Irwin, a festival programmer at SXSW, holds to the idea that “seven minutes is the perfect amount of time so a healthy relationship can be formed outside of here.”
She was right. When I first approached my seat, I felt a little like Lucy of the Peanuts comic strip in her "The Doctor is In" booth, but looking back now, I believe I had an impact on my group.
Meeting The Mentees
My first mentee, Cassie LaCourse, the CEO of Maya Bamboo, was well-prepared and armed with a clear and focused pitch. She and her husband manufacture and sell Hot Bambu, a green, sustainable charcoal product made from bamboo, a quick-growing, easy to replenish plant.
They’ve had a few missteps (a partnership gone awry), but also successfully tested the product at Whole Foods. Like so many of us, they need capital in order to expand manufacturing and scale the operation, but don’t want to pursue VC money. “I know if we take it," LaCourse says, "we’re out.” I recommended she contact BELLE Capital USA, an early-stage angel fund run by an entrepreneur with a penchant for green products and services that invests in women-led businesses, and Springboard Enterprises, which helps women-led companies accelerate growth. Was that helpful? LaCourse says I directly addressed her questions, “gave good insight,” and she “looks forward to a continued relationship.” (As do I.)
At the same time, my fellow mentors also had a steady stream of advice seekers. One of them, Brian Simmons, founder and CEO of EventSlice, is little more than a startup himself, having launched his Austin, Texas-based business in August 2012. But in the past year, Simmons has already put together an impressive online marketplace that helps consumers and businesses plan events; he was proverbially inspired, he says, by “seeing a problem and deciding [he] could solve it.”
There was no shortage of people who wanted seven minutes of Simmons’ time. The mentees, says Simmons, were “trying to figure out what they needed to know. You’d be surprised at the number of people who want to start an online marketplace but don’t understand the size of that market.”
Simmons thinks it is possible to change a stranger’s life in seven minutes and considers the instant mentor sessions a good exercise for entrepreneurs. “Meeting random people and perfecting your pitch,” he says, “is valuable practice” for future situations. And he believes he made an impact in his hour, helping one particular mentee make significant progress.
Another one of my mentees needed assistance for his website for women dealing with aging issues. He understood he was targeting a rapidly expanding demographic and wanted specific ideas about potential partners and advertisers. His enthusiastic responses and fervent note-taking seemed to indicate my advice was helpful—and true to Kathryn Irwin’s goal—we live in neighboring cities and plan to meet in the near future.
Not all my sessions went smoothly. One person kept asking if we could work together, but never explained what he wanted my company to do. Another needed help on her pitch, which I couldn’t provide in seven minutes, since it took nearly that long for me to understand what she wanted to do.
My final mentee was so new at his company, he didn’t even have business cards yet. But his passion and enthusiasm reminded me of the advice Steve Blank shared about building strong teams. The mentee explained his boss’s vision when starting Cont3nt.com was to "save journalism." His goal was to learn how to pitch to the media, so just talking to me helped him. I also offered to make some introductions to media outlets high on his wish list.
I learned a lot in my one hour of speed mentoring. Mentorship is a two-way street, and mentees are only going to get something out of it if they’re truly willing to listen. Helping transform someone’s life in a few minutes is hard unless you’re Cinderella’s fairy godmother armed with magic words and a wand. But we can all help. Sometimes all people are looking for is an introduction to someone you know, or a different perspective than their own. It’s likely each of us has something of value to offer other entrepreneurs, so be open to the experience.
As Simmons says, the opportunity to mentor is about paying it forward. “The best thing you can do,” he says, “is help people change their lives.” It's even better if you can do so in just a few minutes.
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