The second week of Techstars (I assume it’s the same for every program) is the beginning of what is fondly referred to as “Mentor Madness.” Over a three week period, we will meet with 90+ mentors for about 25 minutes each. Because of scheduling constraints, it’s averaging 7–8 mentors per day.
As you can maybe imagine, this process can be a bit overwhelming. You may have heard any of the old sayings about there being a lot of opinions… I have an new opinion about those sayings: they’re right.
Don’t misunderstand; I’m grateful for the opportunity to interact with and get feedback from so many well-qualified mentors. But I was a unprepared for the volume and variety of feedback, despite reading several blogs about Mentor Madness and talking about it with our MD and alumni. Trying prepare for each meeting, pitch to and fully engage with each mentor, take notes about feedback, and absorb/digest it all at the end of the day is exhausting. Mentor Madness itself is a full-time job.
Here are some things we learned during our first week of Mentor Madness (this could be probably be applied to any intensive customer discovery period you go through as a startup):
It’s really really hard to keep up with other work you might have planned while fully engaging with Mentor Madness. Unless you’re working on things that have to move forward, you’re probably better off focusing on learning as much as you can from the feedback. They call it “slowing you down to speed you up” for a reason: unbiased, experienced mentors are really good at cutting through all the bullshit that startup founders build up to complicate decisions. Our mentor meetings have resulted in at least 3 big realizations/decisions about issues we were struggling with for the previous few weeks.
Having a team of more than 2 working full-time while in an accelerator would (probably) make things significantly easier. We’re actively looking for additional engineers to help keep product development on track, because Maggie (co-founder/CEO/fearless leader) and I are swamped with accelerator stuff. So, while we focus on the accelerator, we’re leaning heavily on our contract design/manufacturing team at Occam Design to keep the product development moving. I can’t stress enough how important this relationship is to our company; they’re allowing us to move like a much larger company and if I could hire them all, I would do it in a heartbeat.
Recognize when to let go of tasks (and the associated stress). This one is very new to me and difficult to follow, as you can tell from our Kanban board below. Mentor Madness can be maddening; it takes up 75% of the available work hours with just meetings, not to mention digesting all the information. Because of that, some things simply can’t happen and have to be let go of to save your mental health. But how to decide? I’ve started to think about dropping or rescheduling tasks like this: 1) what happens if I don’t do this task? 2) are we going to use the results in the next week? 3) have I been struggling with the task for more than three days? 4) who benefits from the completed?
Know what you want before you ask. Yes it’s a bit of a cliche, but I have found this to be very applicable to a couple of topics in the past week. First, this is a major key for mentor meetings. We’ve already had a few meetings that were fairly unproductive, due in large part to poor preparation on our part. Second, we’ve learned that our attempts to interview potential hires was a waste of both their time and ours because we didn’t have a full understanding of our short/long-term needs.
Keep grinding, no matter what. We had some tough feedback last week. We had a setback on our testing schedule. Fundraising is a constant challenge. There aren’t enough hours in the day. The hurdles keep coming and it doesn’t necessarily get easier to jump them. But they don’t all need to be jumped; some hurdles you should run around or through. Get creative and find a way to keep moving, the solution will come to you.
Lean in/keep digging/engage. However you want to say it, the point is that the valuable feedback is never going to be the first piece of feedback. The valuable feedback is rarely going to be easy to find. The valuable feedback is probably not going to be the easiest to hear. Even if you’ve got a short meeting, don’t rush to get through all your questions, because you almost certainly didn’t plan to ask the right one before the meeting. If you’re focused on the conversation rather than asking your next question, you’ll oftentimes be lead down a more valuable path than the one you planned on.
Build where/how/what makes you happy, not where/how/what the crowd says is best. This is probably my favorite/most impactful piece of advice from the past week, partially because of who said it and partially because it gave us permission to commit to bringing our new knowledge back to Louisville. Maggie and I don’t just want to build a company we’re proud of, we also want to help build the kind of community that makes it easier for other startups to flourish. Obviously we can’t do that alone, but perhaps more obviously, we also can’t do that if we’re only looking for talent and building roots in the stereotypical entrepreneurship hubs. As two mentors said, you’ll work harder if you build where the ecosystem isn’t strong, but you’ll be happier with the result.
If you enjoyed this, follow me here (and on Twitter) for more. Also, please share with anyone you know in entrepreneurship; disseminating my knowledge gained from this experience is a big goal for me. I’ll be writing a weekly recap of lessons learned during Techstars, along with some occasional posts about medical devices, startups, healthcare, etc.