The Future of Start up Acceleration: Part II

Part II: Future of Mentorship


Vessela Ignatova

3 years ago | 7 min read

Part II: Future of Mentorship

This post is a part of a three-part series. If you missed “Part I: The Future of Work (for start ups)”, you can access it here.

In Part III, the Future of Ownership, I tie together the trends of decoupling of talent / mentorship / funding and location.

In the first part of this series, I explored the Future of Work for start ups. The conclusion was:

The Future of Work is Fluid: it is a distributed start up workforce, coming together like a heart beat, at a pace that makes people most inspired, engaged and effective.

The point is, there is a decoupling of talent and location to some extent; not tossing out physical proximity entirely, but using it strategically. Moving onto the next topic, I explore a potential decoupling of mentors and location.

the tl;dr of this Part II:
The desired state of meeting mentors is 1:2 for pure in-person meets vs a mixed model (a combo of both on video and in-person, alternating between one and the other).

The majority (60–75%) of founders report their mentor networks have expanded (in number, geographical scope, seniority, and specialization) in the last year, while the time spent with mentors has decreased.
Half of our founders believe the cultural barriers between them and their mentors are lifting up.

Going through the data I collected, the way start up founders work with mentors and how they ideally want to work with mentors, reinforces the concepts of flexibility and focus I discussed in Part I.

The desired way to work with mentors, from video-only (blue) to in-person only (green).

The general trend is a desire for start up founders to see mentors in person more often.

While almost half of the respondents (47%) currently see their mentors and advisors solely online, only 7% would like for this to continue online.

They cite that “[meeting in person] is only necessary in order to form a close relationship.” And 15% of all respondents (or 30% of those who are currently interacting only on video) want to go from seeing mentors solely on video to a solely in-person model.

Furthermore, there is still a 40% of all respondents (who are also only on video right now) who would like to work with their mentors in a physical environment in person, at least some of the time: 25% want to move to a mixed model and 15% want to move to a solely in person model.

The people who are already mixing seeing mentors on- and off-line, want to move even further right on that video-to-in-person scale, with 33% of total respondents saying they want to go to in-person meetings exclusively.

Three key things from this chart:

  • one, the majority (53%) of people who want to see mentors in person, at least some of the time, are already doing it.
  • two, the people who want to interact with mentors only on video, are sticking to their preference and planning on keeping it this way. They are a small minority (7% according to my data).
  • and three, the general trend is, once people find the means and opportunity to work the way they want to work, to have a 60%/33% (or 2:1) split between a mixed and a pure in-person model.

The qualitative mentions throughout the survey in relation to the preferred way of meeting mentors points to a new social and cultural dimension of signaling how close a relationship is or is intended to be. While this wasn’t the focus of this research, it is interesting to see what new signals people will employ to demonstrate closeness in this fluid working world.

(A side bar: back in college, we’d come up with a rule of thumb about the expected speed for reply through various media: text = now, DM on Facebook = within 6h, email = within 24h, a letter = month+. We need to come up with this but for relationship closeness, in a business context, now with ClubHouse and zoom in the mix.)

The next thing I explored was the quantity and quality of the mentors start up founders connected to in the past year. Here is a chart:

The vast majority, or 67% of people respond their mentor network increased in number of people. It also increased in geographical span (63%), where founders connected with mentors from at least one other country.

It increased in seniority (60%), indicating founders tapped into people who are more likely to be unavailable in normal times; and increased in specialization (73%) — founders found niche experts. To top that, 23% of people spent less time with mentors. This suggests founders spend less time but more quality time with mentors.

A few quotes say “my top mentors are now on the other side of the Atlantic”;
“with video you can stack a few mentor meets and reduce commute — make efficient use of time”,
“[at WeWork] what helped me focus was the structured classes.”

Founders connected with more people, and more relevant people. They gained access to mentors from other cities/countries, with senior titles, and special skills, that were traditionally not so easily accessible.

I personally have opened international doors for my founders, by 1) making it an option and 2) making it happen.

When I joined WeWork Labs, one of my mandates was to work with founders to help them solve from the tiniest to the biggest issues. One such issue was a UX question one of my founders had. I called up an old colleague, and Google UX & Creative Strategy Director, Rudi, who spent an hour asking questions and drawing a methodology for defining and answering the problem.

In an hour, we had a whole new universe of possibilities and direction to consider. Now, this was one ask, coming out of one lab, engaging one mentor. WeWork Labs were operated out of 85 locations globally, tapping into 4000+ mentors. That’s access to mentorship on steroids.

And while 1) used to not even be a consideration for founders, and I pointed that as one of my strengths as an advisor, now this is top of mind for many. With covid, people are more open to, are seeking, and are finding the most relevant people — not only the people available by proximity and their home ecosystem.

So far with this research we established the following: founders can reach new people across the globe; founders can reach amazing mentors who achieved a lot; and founders are more efficient in the time they spend with them; Does this mean cultural barriers are being lifted?

A third of people say a definite No; a fifth are still debating; but close to half say Yes. We might be seeing the early signs of blurring cultural lines amongst tech ecosystems of the world. Or at least an excuse to push for it; a predisposition.

This bit of the research could be improved by understanding the geographies the Yes’ are from and tap into; the kind of mentors they tap into; the investors they raise from, etc. I do have further questions, like is there a clustering of demand for mentors (i.e. utilizing only a handful “top” mentors); how this evens the field for diverse founders,

or founders from small countries like Bulgaria, who typically don’t have access to high flying VCs; are certain geographies the regional go-tos or is it a two way street; are there clusters with high specialization, and where? We’ll need to do more research..

What this means for start up acceleration programs, is that now we can tap, almost by default and expectation, into remote/specialized/senior pools of mentors, and give access to more people from more places:

  • you can tap into oversees mentors who couldn’t fly to London for a 2h workshop before (making the time dedication asked from the mentor less demanding)
  • ..or just tap into a pool of more senior people whose schedule used to be prohibitive
  • you can use stellar mentors as a magnet for people to come together physically, and motivate them, and engage them to build
  • you can bring in multiple mentors from various places to offer competing opinions
  • ..or play with the format of sessions and have multiple mentors teach the same topic to different sub groups and then turn that into a friendly competition!

And the list goes on..

So here we have it, there are three trends which are shaping start up acceleration:

  • decoupling of talent and location — leading to a fluid workforce
  • decoupling of mentorship and location — leading to globally connected, locally effective mentors, and,
  • decoupling of funding and location — I will explore this in the next part!

People talk about the world as one brain or one organism. If I were to put my futurist hat on, I’d claim we are on the precipice of opening that cultural possibility up. I can spend hours talking about globalization and whether it has been a success so far, but we might be able to push one step further into that direction. Now we need cultural momentum, the tech and supporting business models to do it.

In Part III I will draw an all these learnings about how to tie into the Future of Ownership of start up (and on the flip-side of that, the business model of the accelerator program).

Originally published here.


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Vessela Ignatova







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