Mentoring and Experimenting

This is on the heels of an analysis over at RWW on the success and failure of technology startup accelerators and the subsequent post on Forbes about job creation being the success story in startups even if we can’t easily quantify their success. The key takeaway for accelerators is that they are becoming the university system for tech entrepreneurs. There are a few tiers of accelerators, the top ones have better odds at setting the participants up for immediate success with more exits and successful startups being built from these top tier startups. There are a larger majority of lower tier accelerators that don’t show this same immediate success for the participants. I would bet that just like community college, the participants learn what they need to be successful they just don’t have the framework for execution handed to them in the same way that the top tier accelerators do. Of course there is a difference in who the mentors are but learning about product/market fit from a popular mentor over at Y Combinator isn’t that much different than learning product/market fit from an equally successful entrepreneur with less desire to build a public personal brand.

I recently talked about how this sort of signaling is more important than the signals that are developed by a college degree. Who cares if you can pass a few tests based on memorizing useless data? You need to be able to signal that you can get shit done. It seems that accelerators and community groups are starting to emerge as a place where these signals can be developed in a safe place.

Socially, this is an interesting phenomenon. We have had a concept of mentorship in society for some time and that mentorship has shifted as society has grown in size. We had mostly one on one mentorship in the distant past with young metallurgists learning by doing with a metallurgy mentor. This grew into university systems where one mentor could teach a group of people instead of show each one how to do things. The fact that we moved from one on one mentorship to universities seems to mean that there is just a need for a lot of people to be mentored while they experiment with their ideas. Of course this was the same conclusion Brilliant Forge put up in their article Why Do Startups Fail? An Analysis of 3,200 High-growth Technology Startups. Although they don’t talk much about the experimenting side.

Experimenting is key, don’t incorporate your company with some lame name like “Seattle Lunch 2.0.” when you may need to pivot a little and adjust the name to “TechCafe” a little while later. Most entrepreneurs that I talk to go through a large number of pivots (this is the tech startup term for throwing out the sole idea of a company and getting a new sole idea) before they find the experiment that works best for their team and market. This really isn’t any different than parenting, investing, running, etc. The need to find a good mentor who you can explain your experiments to and get feedback from is critical to learning to distinguish on your own which experiments are going well and can eventually end in amazing results. This need to experiment and play with ideas is partially why there are so many playful events that happen at startups – dance routines, costume contests, etc. All in an effort to evoke a playful mindset where new ideas to experiment with the team can be hatched.

In my post on The Difficulty of Pursuing Your Ideas, this falls squarely in the starting category and is sort of a requirement to building anything great. Joel Gascoigne talks about this same concept a little more forcefully in his post Don’t Register Your Idea As A Company. The concept is the same though. To build something great, you should start with experiments and if you need mentorship to pick out the best ones or mentorship on how to turn the best ones into real businesses or products you should pursue those mentors to make the experiments turn into products moreso than pursuing a fancy degree.


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