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Tech mentors: The good, the bad and the ugly


Luis Rivera, CEO and co-founder of ETFmatic, discusses the pros and cons of having a mentor.

I have mentored hundreds of entrepreneurs from dozens of countries.

Pretty much every flavour, from MBA graduates or successful professionals that discovered they want to suffer the freedom to start from scratch, to young developers in accelerator programs across Europe.

The lost causes, the predictable success stories and everything in between – half probably don’t remember me, a few hate me, too many take my advice too seriously.

I’ve managed dozens of mentors that gave up the time they didn’t have for their families to help the next generation in many of these programs. They obviously also had an opinion on how to manage a business to support entrepreneurs launching businesses.

As a consequence of launching my first FinTech startup 3 years ago, with both the benefits and challenges of having never worked in financial services, I’ve dealt with both people who wasted my energy as well as geniuses that we couldn’t have survived without. And, truth be told, geniuses that could have ended us and other people who we owe being alive to.

I’ve experienced from both sides of the table how mentoring can make or break a startup: in many ways mentoring will shape your startup more than the little cash you’ve got left in the bank. Cash is probably a more urgent issue, but that merits another post.

Like a cult movie, mentors play three roles. It obviously helps if you figure out what shapes potential mentors before they become your companion.

The Good

Good mentors are the worst. The best startups navigate uncharted waters by definition, normally working on a problem no one has solved that way (if at all) before.

Domain experts will view everything from the lense of their (corporate) successes and failures. They are likely to answer the questions from the startup instead of helping them identify the right hypothesis to work on testing.

Serial entrepreneurs will rarely be transparent about the endless times they almost gave up, and rarely realise how much things have changed since they last spent time in a basement. Yet many can boost morale, share great ideas and introduce you to powerful friends. Handle with care.

The Bad

Bad mentors are relatively easy to spot. Conflicts of interest. Lack of hobbies. Ego driven. Trying too hard or not listening at all.

They might to be able to provide marginal value, but they are guaranteed to distract you as long as you allow them to.

Run as fast as you can unless you are out of ideas – in which case you should probably try to get a job.

The Ugly

Ugly mentors are the ones that hurt repeatedly, but that can gauge the urgency of the long list of unsolved problems that can make your startup fail, and help you identify options to continue your quest.

They are the ones that let you know when you are wrong, trying different angles to make you aware of risks you are oblivious to.

They are also the ones that provide data driven emotional support in times of need, the ones that understand that as a CEO one of your toughest challenges is managing your own psychology.

Always keep a few on speed dial. If you can’t find one, try talking to a stranger whose life could be better thanks to what you are up to and learn why he doesn’t care.

Worth it?

So is mentorship worth it? Most definitely.

You have to push your limits and try your luck. Learn and share. Share and learn because at the end of the day, beyond the human need to help others develop by looking at their problems from your perspective, enjoying the intellectual freedom of thinking about challenges that you are not committed to, or the comforting feeling of your opinion having a positive impact on projects that might change the world, the best thing about being a mentor is that it helps you realise whether you are ready to launch another startup or if you’d rather watch from the sideline.