How to mentor entrepreneurs by giving useful feedback

In the first of three columns on mentoring business builders, George Coelho looks at the notion of positive and critical feedback.

I am often asked what advice I would give young entrepreneurs as a mentor, and what kinds of networks could possibly help them.

I thought about what I do to help entrepreneurs, the kinds of advice I give them and then distilled this into actual advice for their potential mentors.

It is also a guide for entrepreneurs in their quest for good mentors. If they are not really helping you enough, as an entrepreneur, along some of the lines below, find another mentor!

Tell them it is a good idea

I recently received an email from an entrepreneur I backed 14 years ago when I lived in Silicon Valley. I was pleased to get the message and instantly remembered the successful deal we did.

Nowadays the gentleman in question is a serial entrepreneur and invests in companies himself. But what surprised me was that he said, ‘You have no idea how much your support 13 years ago was crucial to me.’

Well I did believe in him and the idea, even though it was something which hadn’t been done before in emerging markets. Therefore I knew it would work and that he could do it.

I probably had difficulty containing my enthusiasm. But if your face lights up when you see your favourite entrepreneur, you are probably on the right track – and so are they.

So the first lesson is do convey your enthusiasm for a project. There are many naysayers out there and if someone is coming to you for money and/or advice, if you believe in it, you had better become a devotee. Your opinion does make a difference. Even when they have all the confidence in the world, they still need reinforcement. We all do. 

Give straight feedback

The counterpoint to telling them it’s a good idea is to tell them when it is not and, if possible, how to fix it. Entrepreneurs are coming to you for feedback, given that they think you have the experience to tell them if and how the deal will work, who the competition might be, where to take the idea strategically and how to raise funding.

If you don’t think the idea makes sense, by all means please tell them. There is nothing worse than hoping they will learn it the hard way; they will have plenty of knocks regardless. The whole idea of giving advice is so that they can skip a few steps and advance the business faster with your help. There is nothing kind in bringing them around to the truth slowly. Young people can take it, they’re resilient.

And if they think you’ve got it wrong, let them defend the idea and convince you. Entrepreneurs need practice so let them rehearse the pitch on you rather than on that one important VC meeting which may be the difference between glory and failure.

I recently helped mentor someone where I am not an investor and he asked how long he should stick to his (excellent) idea if he can’t get funding, given that the funding market is particularly difficult. I told him he should not contemplate shelving the idea until he knocks on every last door possible and then proceeded to give him a few more ideas of doors to knock on. The time to give up is not before the business is started.

In another case an excellent young entrepreneur I knew turned up one day with some geezer in tow. I immediately set about rounding on the geezer (who became annoyed, much to my delight) and then later told my young friend to dump the guy, which happened soon after. Mission accomplished. The guy would have sucked all the energy out of my young friend. The lesson to this: protect your entrepreneurs fervently.

Part II – Mentoring entrepreneurs through sleight of hand

Related Topics

Business mentoring