One of the best pieces of advice I received when I moved into the venture world was to surround myself with a group of mentors who wanted to help me, believed in me, and would act as a sounding board as I grew in the industry. It’s a concept I believe is based on the Jim Collins article “Looking Out for Number One,” and was heavily emphasized during my two years as a Kauffman Fellow.
Except it’s not so easy.
Whether you are of the opinion that venture is an apprenticeship business open to anyone or disagree and believe it’s better served by operators transitioning into investors, there is no doubt that both profiles must have mentors to caution against mistakes, provide context for decisions, and provide guidance in planning for the future.
But the thing is: great, learned, wise people are, well, busy. And I, Ezra Galston, am, well, kinda normal. Further, four years ago, I had no existing relationships in the venture world, and I barely knew any really successful entrepreneurs.
There’s an ancient Jewish proverb found in the two millennia old book Ethics of Our Fathers that advises, seemingly offhandedly, “make for yourself a teacher.” The nuance of that odd language – “make” – is that mentors don’t fall into your lap. While there may well be altruistic people out there who take protégés under their wing for no reason other than their own big heart, that’s not the norm for most of us (at least I’ve rarely been the beneficiary of that). Most of us have to be proactive – and actively chase down our own Board of Directors.
But there’s one other nuance worth mentioning. When you “make” your own circle of mentors, you are optimizing for one goal: learning. And the truth is, someone greater, more experienced than you doesn’t ever need to view themselves as an altruistic, charitable mentor in order to “teach” you. In principle, as long as you have an open line of communication to someone who respects you and to whom you wish to learn from, you really need no level of formal relationship at all. All you need to do is prompt and then listen.
And that’s me (and most of us). There are a few people in my life who I’d imagine are aware that I consider them mentors (I’ve never asked). But there are a far greater number who I personally believe have no idea. I speak to them 3-4 times per year, they (hopefully) consider me thoughtful, and are willing to share their experiences with me.
More, the majority of the people I’m describing, I initially met via cold e-mail. I think e-mail is extraordinary. And most people utilize it extraordinarily poorly. I put a lot of effort into my cold e-mails: research, humor, relevance – and that’s worked. I have deep appreciation for the people who’ve been willing to build a relationship with me based on written text (I’d note them here but I don’t want to embarrass anyone…or flood their inbox). It’s probably representative of the fact I love to write. People who like to sing or be funny or be sardonic or whatever it might be should find an outlet for those qualities to connect with the people they look up to. There’s no one way to “make” a mentor – there’s only being true to yourself.
I think this is more important than ever, especially as both VC and entrepreneurship go through its biggest boom in a decade. I have enormous respect for my teammates and managing directors. And I continue to learn a lot from all of them – in fact, we learn together. But as a startup MicroVC fund ourselves, there is no one on my team with, for example, 20 years of venture experience. Many entrepreneurs – even those with institutional backing – have taken that money from investors who themselves (like me) have been in the industry for less than five years. That’s OK, it’s just a mathematical reality as the industry expands, but its also a situation that demands taking responsibility into your own hands – proactively “making” your own mentorship circle to increase your odds of success. Lots of people talk, but it’s incumbent on each of us to choose who we want to listen to.
I think all of us have some small piece inside us, always fantasizing that some angel will drop out of the sky, help us, believe in us and make us better. But there’s a reason the world doesn’t work that way. Becoming great requires hard work, effort and deep thoughtfulness – if it came easy, it frankly wouldn’t make any sense.