Mentorship is a critical catalyst for passage, transition and development as a pre-entrepreneur. But mentorship, like entrepreneurship, can break down in the nitty gritty details. My intention is to tell you how to avoid these five mistakes many entrepreneurs often make when they try to get mentored by a VC. It falls under what my mentor, Mark McCormack, taught me.
1. Take yourself out of the running before you’re in the running
Some pre-preneurs take themselves out of the hunt for a mentor. They think they’re not qualified. I call this premature disqualification.
For example, when I taught baseball camp, we never said to any 5- or 6 year-old, “Nope, sorry, you’re not qualified to learn from me” (a high school hero, college zero). No one wonders if the 6-year-old is ready. The ball is one third the size of their head yet they still fling it and catch it decently well.
Yet many talented adults will think, “I’m not ready to be mentored by a VC.” Don’t think that. In entrepreneurship, we are all like the 6-year-old.
2. Fake it (aka “I just want your money”)
The ask-for-mentorship-before-you-ask-for-money maneuver wasn’t invented by me in my last post or in my SXSW VC panel. It has been around since Confucius’s time. The Chinese people with money were experts at something. If you went to a wok maker and asked him for mentorship on metallurgy, you had better be sincere. If you only asked two or three questions before soliciting money from them, you would end up with nothing.
People with money know when you’re faking getting mentored.
3. Define official titles or roles
In mentorship, there are no DTRs (“define the relationship” talks). Dating might require one, but DTRs creep mentors out. No VC wants you to ask them to “go steady.” No VC wants you to want to commit. Heck, they won’t even say “no” so you actually do not get closure
Even after you have a DTR in the form of a term sheet from one VC, you can still have another VC mentor you. Be slutty.
4. Assume that the relationship will follow a predetermined path
Mentorship is like school but in a more extreme, wilder, crazier way. There is no normal path.
For months, a VC might ignore you, be mean to you, never email you back. And then he starts mentoring you so much, he sleeps on your sofa. The 24 x 7 x 330 (a VC is required to take 35+ days of vacation per year) approach was how Founders Fund VC Luke Nosek worked with Powerset’s Barney Pell and Mike Maples with Evan Williams. Dave McClure napped on a bus with Josh Williams (I don’t think Dave chipped in money on Gowalla, but it does prove that sleeping on a sofa is a more critical sign than merely napping).
Someday, the VC might wake you up not by saying “Good morning,” but by whispering “You’re not gonna leave me out when you raise funds, are you?”
5. Confuse being off the radar with being off the grid
There will be a time when your VC mentor messages you back in 10 or 15 minutes with an email that took them 20 to 30 minutes to write (there is a time surplus because they were waiting for your question and were prepared to answer it). There will also be a time when your mentor drops off. You are no longer on their immediate radar
Just because you’re no longer tethered to your VC mentor does not mean you should panic. Maybe he doesn’t know what to say. Maybe she is unfocused right now. Being off their radar is not off the grid, so be patient.
Larry Chiang is CEO of Duck9, a service that helps college students improve their FICO credit score. He has testified at Congress and World Bank on credit. He is the author of the book What They Don’t Teach You at Stanford Business School, the unofficial sequel to Mark McCormack’s What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School. He’s currently working on a sequel, What They Will NEVER Teach You at Stanford Business School, which will be published in 2012.