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The true value of mentorship for tech startups

Mentorship MJ and Stevie
Even exceptional talent needs to learn from experience

“If you cannot see where you are going, ask someone who has been there before.” That’s one power quote from J Lorren Norris that pretty much sums up the logic behind mentorship – reaching out for guidance from those who have walked the path you intend on taking.

For every startup, the story behind that one idea that grew to become a success is laced with glory and romanticism that attributes all success to the founders and their hard work.

Unfortunately one major aspect that’s often overlooked is how these victors had to tap into the experiences and knowledge of seasoned practitioners who helped them walk the right path, avoid unnecessary mistakes and navigate through a torrent of challenges that come with starting a small business.

At its very core a tech startup is a small business first and foremost, trying to harness the power of the internet and technology to provide a solution with a profit motive at the end of it all.

While a startup can single itself out as a new approach to enterprise and disruption thanks to novel tech ingenuity, it still encounters the same challenges every fledgling business faces.

Issues to do with adopting the right business model, raising and managing finances, understanding (and approaching) the potential market and having the right delivery when making that crucial pitch to potential investors are as topical for tech startups as much as they are for small businesses in any other industry.

Through the right mentorship the absence of skills and appreciation of crucial business factors can be addressed as a channel for the transfer of this knowledge is created.

Mentorship helps provide a centre of accountability,something that has a way of eluding young and eager first-time entrepreneurs learning the ropes of being their own bosses.

More importantly mentorship helps assure any potential investors that what the tech startup lacks in experience it makes up for with long term vision and responsible decision making that’s being ushered in by entrepreneurial war horses and industry veterans.

In every case a startup’s investor profile is raised by the presence of a guiding hand that helps keep the important decisions in check.

So who are the mentors and where are they?

In a tech ecosystem that is still in its infancy these questions are hardly answered by off-the-cuff responses. Without accelerators and angel investor networks the usual “mentor clusters” are not what we have at our disposal.

The network of local tech hubs that has mushroomed in the past year is still at a stage of establishment and self discovery which rules out each of the four hubs as consistent pools of mentorship.

This leaves a temporary void which can be frustrating to the ambitious startup keen on getting that vision from honest(won’t steal your idea or manipulate the relationship) accommodating and experienced entrepreneurs and business leaders.

This does not mean that we do not have capable individuals who can potentially pour out experience and advise to aspiring tech entrepreneurs-far from it. There are several potential candidates to fit the shoes.

As a country previously subjected to economic turmoil there’s the breed of entrepreneurs from various sectors who had dabbled in, and understood business before the “dark times”, adapted to the environment during the lows and are still around betting on whatever opportunity lies ahead.

Other mentors lie in the pool of talent that has found its place beyond our borders as working professionals and investors but still maintains a deep rooted connection with home.

Who should you approach to be a mentor?

A good mentor (or mentors) should be able to provide a wealth of skills, knowledge and experience in entrepreneurship, technical or professional expertise, networking, possible avenues for funding and more importantly vision.

As an example, career professionals in investment finance, SME business modelling, business consultancy, business development and marketing can provide your startup with knowledge that helps mould or perfect your business case.

Through their professional and business networks they can also help point your startup in the direction of potential investors when your startup is ready to scale.

Choose mentors that will have the time to dedicate to help guide your startup, something that is easily addressed when you find a passionate and eager individual willing to live vicariously through your steps to success. It makes sense to identify someone you can communicate with regularly as well, even if they are out of the country.

Across various sectors (not just tech or telecoms) startups should identify individuals who believe in not just the startup idea but the energy and drive your startup has to be an enterprise in its own right.

The whole “fledgling Zimbabwean tech ecosystem” dynamic makes this factor difficult deal with at first. However one way to handle this is to approach individuals in the sector or industry that your startup seeks to provide a solution for.

If for example, your startup is working on an e-learning application, an entrepreneur with an interest in education or a seasoned practitioner in education delivery models (for example an educationist, lecturer, or school administrator) can offer solid direction even if they do not have an aptitude for object oriented programming.

So does your startup have mentor and do you see value in having one? Who would you recommend any startup to seek mentorship from?

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