This month’s INSEAD case profiles the entrepreneurs behind red Bus, which has become the largest online ticketer for buses in India. One key to the success of this venture was the ability of the founders to get the most out of the Entrepreneur Accelerator Program offered by the Bangalore chapter of TiE, The Indus Entrepreneurs.
It is remarkable that senior veterans of the entrepreneurial scene are willing to give their precious time to the rising generation of startup executives, but that was the impetus behind TiE. The organization came into being because its founders, all successful entrepreneurs of Indian heritage, wanted to give back by providing a helping hand to others who are launching companies.
Good mentors are not difficult to find in India. In the technology world, organizations such as TiE and NASSCOM have well-developed mentoring programs. In other sectors, the Confederation of Indian Industries is also focusing more on providing assistance to younger and smaller firms. The alumni associations of most higher education institutions offer similar services, in some cases transcending the boundaries of any one school (e.g. via the pan-IIT alumni association). There is no shortage of business plan competitions in the country, and winners typically receive mentoring as a reward.
I have also found as I have gotten to know India’s venture elite that many famous people are extraordinarily generous with their time. Almost all the entrepreneurs or venture investors I have met tell me several stories about people they are helping who reached out to them via email or at an event, instead of using the usual referral networks. Of course, such celebrities receive dozens of requests for help during the year, and they are only able respond to a few that touch them in some way. Typically, either the entrepreneur’s personal story and zeal move them, or else they connect emotionally with the market or problem the entrepreneur is addressing. Nonetheless, I find that India’s best-known entrepreneurial figures are much more likely to help others pro bono than are their counterparts in other countries.
Connecting yourself to an able mentor is feasible, though it may require a lot of work and many tries before you succeed. But how can you benefit most from mentoring once you have secured a commitment from capable people who can help you? Having observed many mentoring relationships, I find that people who are new to working with an experienced guide must first overcome a mental block in the form of an inappropriate analogy. Those who have risen through the Indian educational system have learned to revere those who educated them, and they tend to approach mentoring relationships as if they were teacher-student relationships. A mentor is neither an instructor nor a guru, and if you inappropriately treat your mentor like a teacher you admire and respect, both of you will derive less from your interactions than you should.
A teacher provides you with knowledge, corrects your errors, and occasionally serves as a role model. In a venture setting, it is difficult for advisors to do these things. In an uncertain market, no one knows what is the right thing to do, and often your most important competitive advantage as an entrepreneur is that you can unlearn the accepted wisdom of the past faster than an established firm does. When you are pioneering something new, it is seldom clear in real time what is an error and what is not. Many entrepreneurs have succeeded in the early stages precisely because they persisted in what others regarded as a wrong or foolhardy course of action. And finally, entrepreneurs can use role models with respect to values or how to treat people or how to communicate, but not with respect to the actions they must take. Entrepreneurs succeed because they are unconventional and do things differently from others. They don’t find success by walking a trodden path.
The most important reason why entrepreneurs need mentors is that they must recognize and allow for their own tendencies to persist when it’s time to change. Starting a business is a leap of faith. The deck is stacked against you in many ways, because rivals have cash, employees, brands, distribution channels, production facilities, established routines, and a host of other assets that you must build from scratch. To take the plunge anyway, you must ignore a lot of negative signals from your environment. Furthermore, as you move forward you will encounter many people who give you discouraging feedback, and will need to overcome many failures while you learn who are your customers and what they will pay for.
As a result, entrepreneurs typically over-compensate by becoming extremely focused on whatever works. Their persistence is a virtue, but it can become difficult for them to walk away from a course of action that once worked but no longer does. Overcoming failure is not as difficult as knowing when to abandon a successful formula. Entrepreneurs get their initial foothold by learning to shut out negative information and ignore what appears to be pessimistic feedback. As a result, they are prone to ignore signals that say it’s time to change course.
A mentor is above all someone who provides you with an authentic and trustworthy reality check. He or she is someone who helps you see the world for what it is, not what you wish it to be. Mentors are there to provide perspective, not solutions. A wise counselor is good at asking thought-provoking questions, not giving you the right answers. He or she helps you identify more options than you would have alone, instead of telling you which option to pursue. The testing question you should always ask after you work with a mentor is whether you now feel you have a more thorough and objective evaluation of your situation than you did before. Can you understand in a new way what you are doing and why?
The next most important reason why entrepreneurs need mentors is to make useful social connections. Mentors can provide useful advice, but the value of counsel is limited when you are trying to do something that is novel, that differs from what others have done. In such situations, no one knows what is the right thing to do. As a result, you need to recombine insights from several people who have dissimilar points of view. The best advice is that which you stitch together yourself, recombining ideas from various people into a wholly new insight that none of them possessed.
Consequently, you need to interact with people whom you don’t already know and who do not think the way you do. Your mentors can introduce you to a wide variety of people who are strangers, but will give you some of their time because the mentor asked on your behalf. This is why you should look for mentors who have great social networks. It’s better to work with a mentor who can help you make useful connections than one whose forte is providing helpful advice.
Once you find a good mentor, your part of the bargain is to execute vigorously on the insights you achieve, as the redBus case exemplifies. People will invest time in you if they see you moving forward, keeping your commitments, and respecting the value of the inputs they give you. Then, also expect you to recognize that you have acquired an obligation. If you succeed with the assistance of mentors, the only way to repay them is to aid others as effectively as you were helped. That multiplies the impact of the time and care they gave you, honoring the investment they made in your success.
INSEAD Alumni Fund Professor of Entrepreneurship, Director, Rudolf and Valeria Maag International Center for Entrepreneurship and Director, 3i Venturelab
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