8 Austin tech leaders offer advice for finding a startup mentor

by Kelly O'Halloran
December 1, 2016

Finding a mentor can be a tricky step in the launch of a new business, and it's one that shouldn't be taken lightly. Just like personal relationships, the mentor/mentee partnership requires a balance of respect, care, honesty and trust. 

We caught up with eight tech mentors throughout Austin to learn what business owners should look for when on the hunt for a new adviser.

 

Monique Maley

"Starting a company can be a lonely business. At the end of the day, I hope that my mentorship provides a sense of support so the entrepreneurs don’t feel so isolated in their journey."

Maley, the president and founder of Articulate Persuasion, became a mentor for Techstars Austin in 2014 after many years mentoring for universities, accelerators, incubators and more. 

How do you know if a mentor will be a good fit?

First, you must choose people who see your vision. It is so easy to get conflicting advice from multiple mentors. I find that is usually because they each see a different vision.

Second, find experts in an area where you or your team are weak. It is a great way both to learn and help identify when and who to bring onto your team.

Third, don’t forget the soft skills. One of the big differentiators between entrepreneurs who succeed and those who don’t are soft skills. You need to become a great leader and communicator and fast. Find mentors who can help you through the journey from startup entrepreneur to CEO.

 

Rob Taylor

"Seek advice and counsel from a variety of folks, but don’t let the whiplash stall your own decision making or conviction."

A mentor at Techstars, Taylor has been the first employee of seven startups over the past 20 years, filling just about every early stage role. He specializes in architecting and guiding a company's early development to minimize risk and maximize the chance of "figuring it out." Presently, he is co-founder and CEO of Convey, a SaaS company influencing post-purchase engagement between retailers and shoppers.

How do you know if a mentor will be a good fit?
 
If they exhibit passion and excitement and put in the time to truly be helpful, this is really all you can ask for from busy and successful people. 
 
What's the best piece of advice you've offered?
 
Avoid confirmation bias at all costs. It kills startups, and I've seen this mistake over and over. This is developing a hypothesis about who your customer is or how the product should be built or any other foundational hypothesis, then seeking out only information and data that confirms it, instead of focusing first on data that would disprove it.
 
 

Amos Schwartzfarb 

"There will be an obvious chemistry, like when you meet a new friend and a willingness to let your ego go in exchange for some great lessons."

Schwartzfarb is the managing director at Techstars, where he also mentors young companies. In his 15 years of tech leadership, he's served in the roles of CEO, founder, COO, VP of customer development, and VP of sales and client success.

What advice do you have for new startup leaders looking for mentors?

Be humble. Be open minded. Don’t have an ego. And be a great listener. Also, a good mentor/mentee relationship is deeper than just asking for help. It’s long discussions and as time goes on usually both sides will learn something.

What are the expectations for call frequency, and is it okay to talk personal?

This is completely relationship driven. I’ve mentored people where I’d welcome a call anytime (day or night) and as many as the mentee would like. I’ve also mentored people where it makes more sense to be disciplined around communication.  

In terms of crossing lines into personal conversations, the same thing applies.

 

Damon Clinkscales

"If I know something or can connect someone who can be helpful to entrepreneurs, it's gratifying to be able to help."

Offering his mentorship both at Longhorn Startup and Techstars, Clinkscales is the founder of Kismet Ventures, a product development firm; Austin on Rails, a tech user group; Austin Open Coffee Club; and Cafe Bedouin, a weekly hack night. For startups, he has served as an advisor in the early stages, serving as a conduit between the development community and entrepreneurs.

What advice do you have for new startup leaders looking for mentors?
 
"Will you be my mentor?" is a heavy ask. Best to start with a specific issue that you are trying to solve and seek those who may have insight on it. Mentorship relationships develop over time, and can't be forced, given the potential time requirements and need for compatibility for success.
 
Should the problems discussed with a mentor be strictly business, or is it okay to venture into personal conversations?
 
Depends on the context. Sometimes business and personal bleed into each other, especially with early stage companies.
 
What's the best piece of advice you've ever given?
 
You should not be looking for a "coder." Let's take a couple steps back.
 
 

Dave Perry

"I really believe in the value of mentoring and hope that we can inspire more people to engage in mentoring — on both sides."

With over 30 years of experience leading and building tech teams, Perry acts as a mentor for Longhorn Startup at the University of Texas. He also teaches, consults and advises startups at the Leadership and Entrepreneurship at the Acton Business School MBA program, while also serving as chairman of the board for The Marbridge Foundation. 

Is it okay to talk personal during mentor/mentee chats?

If the mentor chemistry and trust is there, I think personal conversations are equally important to business ones. As an entrepreneur, you simply can't separate your business life from your personal one given how all consuming both can be, particularly if you have a family. 

What's the best piece of advice you've ever given?
 
If you are going to go through the pain, agony, fear and loneliness to create something new then, by all means, focus on solving a big problem and don't waste your efforts on a minor inconvenience. Too often, I see very bright and talented people working on businesses designed to solve problems that have either already been solved or just not worth the effort, yet our society has many challenges facing it that aren’t being addressed.
 
Take a little extra time and find a big, hairy problem that is causing other people enough pain that they will pay you for fixing it!
 
 

Maxine Ramirez

"I had some pretty large hurdles in the onset of my career, and I always promised that I would do everything I could to help women of all ages have an easier path into technology." 

Ramirez, a self-taught coder, works at Razorfish as their senior content strategist. She serves on the leadership team for ChickTech, both mentoring and leading the high school program that hosts events to get high school girls excited about technology and engineering.
 
What advice do you have for new startup leaders looking for mentors?
 
I think mentoring is fantastic, but it should be organic in nature. Specifically seeking out someone because you think they will answer all your questions or solve a problem is not the most effective way to approach it. Don't force it, just let it develop and foster on its own.
 
How often is too often for a phone call?

It's probably best to consolidate questions into a coffee date or phone call to get the most out of your discussions. However, if there's a major issue that arises, your mentor probably won't mind a quick chat. Email is good for less pressing questions, as well, and gives the mentor an opportunity to respond when they can take a moment. Ultimately it comes down to respecting the time your mentor is providing you and being yourself.
 
 

Nicole Engard

"Your mentor needs to be someone you're completely comfortable with. You can't feel like you can't ask them questions or share everything with."

When Engard was in school, no one had encouraged her to explore tech as a career. She became a mentor and director at ChickTech to help girls understand all of the career options out there. In addition to her work at ChickTech, she currently is a content strategist at Red Hat and also volunteers for Koha ILS as an author for opensource.com. 

Any advice for those in search of a tech mentor?

Don't force it! I didn't even realize my mentors were mentors until well into our relationships. When starting out, ask everyone you can for advice. Everyone has something to provide, and one of those people will have something special that will grow them from a simple advisor to your mentor. 

What's the best piece of advice you've ever given?
 
Never stop learning. Once you get comfortable you become obsolete. And remember learning doesn't just happen in the classroom. You can learn through colleagues, mentors, other businesses, and of course online. 
 
 

Tony Averbeck

"A good mentor wants to teach you to fish, not to be there spoon feeding you caviar."

Averbeck, a sales guru with over 30 years experience, mentors at Capital Factory. In 2012, he designed and launched CareInHomes.com, an online matching platform connecting senior citizens with in-house care agencies. Averbeck currently heads the sales team at SubjectWell.com, a clinical trials marketplace for patient recruitment. 

What advice do you have for new startup leaders looking for mentors?
 
Best case, seek out mentors who have made it to the top of the same mountain you're looking to climb. I think the direction/instruction they can provide is going to be far more relevant, plus they are more likely to be able to connect you with others, be they clients or partners who can impact your business quickly. Also, look for mentors who ask lots of questions and who push you outside your comfort zone.
 
How do you know if a mentor will be a good fit?
 
I think it comes down to results. Did the advice or direction the mentor gave make a positive difference when applied? Did they make the introduction that they said they would? Did what they say would happen, actually happen (especially if you initially thought differently)? Personally, I stick with mentors whose advice gets me where I want to go faster. Again, it's the results that matter most.
 
What's the best piece of advice you've ever given?
 
Double your price.

 

Images provided by LinkedIn and Shutterstock

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