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Accelerator Mentors, are They Worth the Trouble?

Do you remember snipe hunting from when you were a kid? If you never participated the game went something like this: Older kids tell a story about an elusive bird like creature called a “Snipe”. They are nearly impossible to catch, but at campouts the older kids send the smaller ones out on a snipe hunt after dinner. If the older kids are good actors they catch quite a few snipe and everyone enjoys “snipe” casserole in the morning while the younger kids recount seeing the “snipe’s” eyes glowing in the dark or jumping a “snipe” only to have it barely get away.

Good mentors are often like the snipe from our youth. We hear about them. They give sage advise at weekly meetings, help startups make valuable connections and even invest in select founding teams. Everyone is amazed at their ability to quickly assess problems and help teams make sense of everything and of course they never put teams in a state of mentor whiplash. They walk from wave top to wave top helping every single company they touch achieve the highest levels of success.

But let’s face it, not all mentors are like the example above. Truth be told, for every midas you have on your mentor bench there are 10 who provide little to no value. If you’ve been running your accelerator for more than 3 years chances are you’ve asked yourself, “Are all these mentors worth it?” It takes you some, yet to be determined, amount of time to coordinate and manage all these high profile, extremely busy people. Further, you don’t know what kind of value they are actually providing to your companies. Capturing and quantifying the results of all the advice they give to your companies is nearly an impossible task. So you are left to 100% gut feel when make judgements on the overall effectiveness of this network.

While this ultimately leaves the final judgement up to you and your team, we are seeing some interesting changes in the industry that suggest accelerator operators might be reining in their once wide mentor networks. However, the changes appearing more and more are not all of the same accord so best practices cannot be determined by what is happening now. Nonetheless, it’s important to note what we’re seeing. If for no other reason than to help you put a critical eye towards the changing industry and operate your accelerator to its highest potential.

We are seeing some accelerators entirely remove their mentor networks. Usually this is preceded by a significant increase in the amount of capital that is being offered to the startups and a requirement to at least be at the beginning stages of product market fit. In this sense the accelerators are beginning to act more like seed stage venture capital firms. Taking up this place in the startup ecosystem requires the goal of the accelerator programing to help the companies be more focused on finding or stepping on the gas in their initial distribution strategies. Therefore, the plethora of opinions from multiple mentors is viewed as more problematic than helpful at this stage. The logical conclusion to is give them all the ax and focus on allowing the companies to find mentors on their own. After all, your teams have gotten to initial product market fit without this mentor network so they probably have some sense of what they’re doing.

To some total removal of mentors may seem extreme, especially when one of the goals of the accelerator is to strengthen the startup and innovation ecosystem within the community. At the same time, the operators are realizing that their current mentor networks are unwieldy and need some kind of reform. In these cases we are seeing more stringent mentor requirements. It’s not enough to simply say, “I want to be a mentor.” These accelerators are intentionally thinning the pool of available mentors by setting up specific time requirements and business experience milestones for each mentor.

As with everything, it’s not a one size fits all approach. But as an accelerator operator you have to decide, “Is my mentor community providing demonstrable value or not?”. If the answer is, “No,” then you need to figure out if culling the herd or taking them entirely out of the picture is best given the objectives of your program and your current state of affairs. You may consider starting with the less extreme option. Work with your team to determine what the ideal mentor looks like in a broad sense and implement those restrictions in an effort to remove low value mentors. Over time if that doesn’t work you can adjust your course and make the tough decisions on exactly how you and your startups will interact with mentors. You know how this goes, small tests lead to bigger implementations based on results. Over time you’ll have made the mentor engagement a very objective, well run machine that fits your startup accelerator to a tee.

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