Primum non obturba: The Startup Mentor’s Oath

Summary: With worldwide explosion of entrepreneurship educational programs and accelerators, more and more of us are mentoring startups. In our eagerness to help, sometimes we can distract entrepreneurs from the most critical issues they need to address. Hence the Mentor’s Oath: Primum non obturba – First, don’t distract.

Primum non obturba – First, do not distract

–Kevin Dewalt, (with apologies to Hippocrates)

I’ve had the wonderful opportunity work with thousands of entrepreneurs for the past 15 years, most recently by offering any entrepreneur in the world free advice over Skype. These interactions also put me in touch with a lot of other “mentors” 1 – particularly at accelerators, incubators, and other entrepreneurship education problems. There are now so many of these programs and not enough experienced founders to serve as mentors, so people outside of the traditional startup circles are jumping in to help.

The overwhelming majority of them are successful, passionate people who are truly and selflessly volunteering their time because they want to help.

This point is so critical that I’ll repeat it – all mentors WANT to help and TRY to help startups. So do friends, family, and co-workers – and for that effort I’m always thankful. Unfortunately all mentors – including me – unknowingly provide GOOD suggestions at the WRONG TIME.

In trying to help, we actually hurt by creating distractions.

Why Mentor Distractions are So Dangerous for Startups

“Startups don’t starve; they drown.”

–Venture Capitalist, Shawn Carolan

Amen, Shawn.  It is easy for mentors to forget how utterly overwhelming, confusing, frustrating and demoralizing the founder experience can be.  As founders we are emotionally vulnerable – we know what we’re up against.  Success requires incredible focus – the opposite of distraction. It means executing on a very few extremely important things and deferring other risks and battles for tomorrow.

It is really sad to see teams who suffer from endless distractions.  Thye jump to the latest crises or new idea as opportunity, employees, and bank account balances slowly slip away.  All founders – even experienced ones – are vulnerable to distraction. We’re confused and desperately seeking the answers, the specific next steps we need to take to minimize our risk.

Do you really want to help? Then take the Startup Mentor’s Oath, based on Primum non nocere – First, do no harm.  More generally stated as, “given an existing problem, it may be better not to do something, or even to do nothing, than to risk causing more harm than good”.

Primum non obturba – First, Do Not Distract.

In other words, it is better to make no suggestions at all rather than add something that will add (yet another) potential distraction to the team.

Common Mistakes Friends & Mentors Make While Trying to Help Entrepreneurs

Here are some examples of frequent mistakes I see – sometimes made by me. If you’re a founder on the receiving end of this type of mentoring, always remember that they mentor is trying to help – just politely thank them and move on.

Brainstorming

“I’ve got an idea! Why don’t you try…?”

Being around creative people is fun – particularly for those mentors stuck in a big boring institution all day. So naturally they want to jump in and “help” startups by offering new ideas.  The last thing most startups need is MORE ideas – usually they need to eliminate existing ones a pick a few to execute on. Unless an idea is really specific and immediately actionable, save it or just mention it in passing.  When people suggest I try new ideas, I usually just thank them2 If they get pushy about it I try to turn the discussion around:  “It’s a good idea – how would you suggest I test risk A, B, C… ?“ – people quickly figure out coming with the idea is the easy part.

Emailing Sites of “Competitors” without Context

From: Someone Trying Unsuccessfully to Help
To: Sally Entrepreneur
Subj: Check out startup X – Looks a LOT like what You’re Doing

There are an overwhelming number of new startups everyday and no doubt many people are working on a similar idea. The founding team is already too worried about them. If they are a legitimate competitor, the team heard about them during Customer Development and know all about them. If not, you’re just filling their inbox with distractions and their heart with an adrenaline spike – founders HATE these emails.  Remember, founders are in a vulnerable spot – we know competition is inevitable but hearing about it is still bad news.  When it comes from a mentor, founders feel an obligation to spend time investigating the startup to try and understand why the mentor thinks it is competitive.  Before you send the email, take some time to analyze the “competitor” and send the entrepreneur something specific they should learn or act on. Don’t have the time? Or don’t know? Then don’t send it.  Founders already spend too much time worrying about clueless competitors – don’t distract them with more noise.

Raising (Potential) Problems Resulting from (Potential) Success

Question: Have you thought about how Google/Facebook… will respond?
Sarcastic Answer: Hopefully the same way Yahoo and MySpace responded to Google and Facebook – or better yet, how Google and Facebook responded to Waze and Instagram.

Startups need to focus on the most immediate risks of failing – not the risks creating by potential success. I see these type of issues raised by service providers. They are a great example of GOOD suggestions at the WRONG time3.  Most startups in accelerators today have 3 major risks – consider focusing on them first. Tomorrow’s potential battles are today’s distractions.

Steering Founders Away from Their Passion

You should consider offering the solution to big health insurance & pharma companies instead of rural 3rd world villages.

Why do startups ultimately fail? The founders stop working on them. Want to guarantee they quit? Push them into something they don’t care about.  When in doubt, ask an entrepreneur why she got into this particular startup – and listen for her internal passion. It is her only real asset.  Someone inspired to start a company because she cares about improving life expectancy for rural people is probably not going to be terribly excited about selling solutions to the same people she considers part of the problem.  Pushing that direction is just a distraction.

Remember – Silence is Better Than Bull—t

A few years ago I was at a startup event with Brad Feld. Someone asked him a question and he responded with “sorry, I don’t know”.  That was it. He didn’t ramble or equivocate. Wouldn’t you respect someone even more who says that? Before you offer suggestions, send that email, or give advice, take a moment to ask yourself:

Are my suggestions helping FOCUS the team or might I be adding another voice to the chaos?
Do I know really know what their biggest risks are and what they should be focusing on today?

Primum non obturba – First, Do Not Distract

Sometimes silence is best.

(I actually have a number of suggestions for how to be a good mentor – especially at an accelerator – If you’re interested in reading them please leave a commment below asking me to write about it.)

About the Photo

The best mentors are great at eliminating distractions and getting teams to focus, focus, focus – on the most important thing. This photo by Esparta called “Sunset and the THINKER” gives me that feeling of singular focus.

 

  1. I put the word in quotes because I don’t think “mentor” adequately describes the working relationship. It connotes a teacher->student relationship and I much prefer thinking of it as two passionate people working together to solve a problem. But I’ll use the word in this post for clarity’s sake.
  2. Obviously…I’m not talking about ideas from current or potential customers – these I listen to with rapt attention”.
  3. Service Providers see these risks all of the time because they usually only work with startups who have achieved some level of success – these are the only ones who can afford to pay them. A startup with B-round funding and 40 employees faces very different risks than a startup in an accelerator

13 Comments

  1. Nishanth June 23, 2013 at 9:09 am #

    Nice post Kevin. Also helpful for entrepreneurs to understand what part of mentor advice to ignore haha

    On your point on ideas though, I feel the onus should be more on the entrepreneur to not take it too seriously. At least in the early stages, new ideas (or old ideas repeated by multiple people) can spark interesting lines of thought that can lead to actionable steps. And founders usually have a much better grasp of their business than the mentors, so it could be hard for mentors to take a call on what is a good idea and what is not. What they should definitely not do is push an idea too much 🙂

  2. Mike June 24, 2013 at 3:15 pm #

    Kevin, this is one post that is not a distraction!
    It’s like you were writing about me!

    You clearly have felt what I am feeling right now – advice from so many quarters, all well meaning and all shaped by each person’s perspective. Yet it’s my dime on the line.

    Thank you for such a fantastically accurate piece.

    The one bit that has me thinking really deeply is the ‘steering away from the passion’ has precisely helped to steer me back to my passion. Thank you.

    Keep the great stuff coming.

    • kevindewalt June 24, 2013 at 5:47 pm #

      Glad it helps!

      Always remember that you’re under no obligation to take anyone’s advice – as you can see, you’d never get anything done. 🙂

  3. Mark June 26, 2013 at 6:45 pm #

    Thanks, Kevin. Kicking myself for being guilty of emailing competitor websites…thanks for the reminder about how demoralizing that can be, as well as distracting.

    I would welcome your post on how to be a good mentor…I assume it will largely be the other side of this same coin…help the team FOCUS. Help them identify their critical success factors and aid them in staying focused on what really matters.

    • kevindewalt June 27, 2013 at 5:51 am #

      Thanks mark! And don’t worry…we’ve all done it. And I’m sure your intentions were golden.

      Will work on it…

  4. Dan Whitaker June 27, 2013 at 11:10 am #

    Excellent post! As we all know, focus is what is important. Focusing on the few key issues is even more important. As mentors we should help them realize what the few key issues are. Then help them focus and and understand those issues.

  5. Nuno July 5, 2013 at 9:01 am #

    Hi Kevin – awesome post! I am mentoring entrepreneurs and would love to read your tips on that as well! But first… I will focus on not distracting them! 🙂

  6. Wayne Barz July 11, 2013 at 7:39 am #

    A very good post and reminds me that the most important job I have in working with our clients is “listening”. I manage Ben Franklin TechVentures, a 30-year old technology incubator (note: not an accelerator). Companies are with us for as long as five years…we form relationships with our companies, not quick acquaintances. When you form a real relationship, I think, you take a different approach in mentoring. Founders are different from one another and providing advice on strategic decisions in a vacuum of not knowing how the founder is likely to execute those decisions is where I think many advisors/mentors fall short. The metaphor is kind of clumsy, but every founder is slightly differently shaped hole and too often mentors have only a single shape of advice they try to jam into every founder.

    • kevindewalt July 11, 2013 at 7:40 am #

      Excellent points Wayne.

  7. Jason Henrichs August 2, 2013 at 4:23 pm #

    this is a must read for every TechStars company before the session begins. I’ve found my greatest value in mentoring has been helping the company 1. figure out what to deprioritize 2. Reconcile conflicting advice from highly successful mentors. I’m going to start with this post every year.

  8. Jim Rudnick August 5, 2013 at 7:19 pm #

    Nice post here…and yes, I too would like to hear more…and would love to share what you have to say with my own list of startups too! 🙂

  9. Rejean chiasson October 9, 2016 at 3:53 pm #

    Hi, i would like to know if i can use one of your picture. Can you email me at : therapie.linterium@hotmail.com.
    Thank’s

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