Thanks mostly (entirely?) to the Portland Incubator Experiment, I have long and awesome list of mentors from tons of companies that have been hugely successful. My startup, Revisu, is wouldn’t be where it is today without them. The advice we get is so good and plentiful, in fact, that it’s hard to keep up with all of the advice we receive.
Parsing and acting on advice is a skill that you have to learn, and it’s a skill that I didn’t understand before I entered PIE–hell, I still might not understand it. So, here are a few things I keep in mind when I’m talking to mentors and advisors.
1. Don’t waste your mentors’ time.
When I first started talking with people, I assumed that I needed to savor every damn second I could get with them. Thus, I figure that if I end a chat early, or run out of things to talk about, or can’t start a decent conversation that I would look amateur and ungrateful for their time.
While it’s true that these conversations are probably the most valuable you’re going to have at this stage, don’t waste people’s time because you feel like you need to be talking.
2. Make a list goals of your conversations.
For chats that you’re trying to schedule ahead of time make sure you have a list of questions or goals. You should probably come up with this list way before hand (in fact, you should have been prompted to call them up based on that list in the first place) as this will help you figure out whether or not you actually need to talk to this person or whether you’re just wasting their time.
3. Understand where they’re coming from.
Everyone has an angle–and not in a shady way! It has more to do with the way humans work. Marketing people think about things as approaches to marketing. PR people think about things in terms of PR. Product guys and founders…well, they have to think about everything. Your job is to find the overlap and pick out the bits that make the most sense for you and your company.
4. There are many ways to do any one thing.
Take launching for example. The aforementioned PR guy would be pushing us to build up to a big launch. But the product guy probably wants us to eschew launching and just open up for business right now–after all, how else are you going to validate your market?
Both have very valid, well measured, and compelling reasons for their respective approaches. But neither is (likely) better than the other! Note that I think this is particularly poignant given the modern startup ecosystem and our belief that there is one really hard way forward.
5. You are ultimately responsible for everything
If your metrics tank (you are tracking your core metrics, right?) because you followed someone’s bad advice, your investors are going to blame you. At the proverbial end of the day, you have to make your calls based on some confluence of advice, experience, data, and gut.
It’s important to remember what a mentor’s motivation is. People who have been there want to give back, so don’t forget to say thanks! Often that feeling of gratitude is what they’re getting out of helping you. For others, they feel like they’re getting the inside track on something awesome, which is hopefully true.
The most important thing to keep in mind when talking with your mentors is to just treat them as people first and teachers second. You’ll learn a lot from them, and they’ll help you build an awesome company!