Robert Heaton

Software Engineer /
One-track lover / Down a two-way lane

You should be a mentor

25 Apr 2013

When I tell my friends that I’ve started mentoring at startup events, they politely splutter into their coffee and start throwing things at me. And when you haven’t yet achieved anything spectacular yourself, it can be very hard not to feel like a fraud when mentoring or advising or otherwise doing anything that implies you know more than someone else about building a company. But you simply do not need to have reached your end goal in order to talk intelligently about how to get to where you are today. No matter how small you believe your accomplishments so far to be.

This isn’t impostor syndrome or anything similarly sexy; it’s just being reserved. I tend to dismiss the stuff I have done - “oh well yes I suppose I did do that, but that was easy.” I give myself similarly little credit for the background knowledge, pattern recognition and instinct I’ve amassed over the years - “everyone knows that, that’s just basic customer development.” It’s good to be humble, but incredibly boring if you go too far.

At the moment I’m just another startup guy, if more dashingly good-looking than most. So if you’ve just raised a $10m Series A or a $900k seed round, you probably don’t want me as a mentor. But if you came from management consulting, or are fresh out of a CS degree, or have only just discovered Lean, then I can probably be of help. There is so much I could teach myself from a year ago, and I was no fool back then. If I could be useful to myself from only 12 months back, then there are definitely a lot of other people I can help too.

I know all of this to be true, but “being a mentor” still makes me a little nervous. I’ve realised that my fear isn’t that I won’t be able to help anyone. It’s that an organiser or another mentor or someone who has spent time and money on attending an event will think “That guy doesn’t know shit. Why should I listen to him? Why is he even here?” I’m scared of looking like I’m getting ideas above my station.

But as I do more and more of these things, I see more and more how ridiculous this is. If you view these engagements as a vehicle to make you look cool and badass then you are right to be nervous. But if you see them just as somewhere for you to give a few pointers to some people who might benefit from or ignore them, then you can’t fail to be alright. If you show up with the genuine and humble intention of saying a couple of things that you believe to be true, and not grandstanding or self-aggrandising, then you have nothing to worry about.

The term “mentor” is overused. It implies some degree of absolute rather than relative wiseness. If you have had a substantial exit, or have built a bunch of shit-hot tech teams, or have just seen and mused enough to have developed a particularly fine sense of pattern recognition, then you are a bona fide mentor. If you are just some guy who has yet to be a part of something really special but has learned a thing or two over the years, then you can still be a lot of help to a lot of people. But you are probably less infallible than the word “mentor” implies; “adviser” is about as far as you should really go.

So I say yes to every opportunity to be a mentor/adviser/whatever, as long as the person asking has an accurate idea of my skill set and skill level. If someone knows that I’m not a big shot or a veteran but still thinks I would be able to add value to people at their event, then I’ll be very happy to be there. Reservedness may not even be a phenomenon outside of England, but wherever you’re from, don’t be too British about things. You may have only ever exited a company escorted by security guards, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a few interesting stories to tell.

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