Here’s the 14th part of my bi-weekly column with The Star Metrobiz. Read the original post here. Hope this helps.
A few months ago, I received an email from the Lester Knight Scholarship and Rolband Fellowship Fund that funded my Masters in Engineering at Cornell University in New York. The founder of the scholarship fund asked former recipients to chip in, and I ended up contributing because without it, I’d never be where I am today. Similarly, one of the reasons I returned to Malaysia to build the startup ecosystem here is my way of giving back to the country, as a government JPA scholar myself. I believe that recognising all the parties that have attributed to your success reinforces a virtuous cycle of gratefulness and good deed.
People say that part of being successful in business is to be likable, and I cannot agree more. Likable people will attract others who will volunteer their time and resources to help them be successful. When I look back at my early startup days, many people went out of their way to support me, often times for nothing in return because they liked my grit and passion as an entrepreneur. Likeable people are humble, willing to learn, hardworking, and persistent. They do their research beforehand and ask intelligent questions. They also offer to help or add value, before they ask for help.
Misconceptions About Mentoring
Entrepreneurs in this region often lament that there aren’t enough successful entrepreneurs to help mentor them. The ones that exist are too busy building their next big thing or prefer to remain in the background because the humble Asian culture tends to misconstrue talking about success as bragging or wanting attention. Others don’t want people to think they’re rich or successful because they want to avoid being discovered and being asked for help.
Firstly, it’s time for them to come out and #doyourpart. Secondly, the truth is that we don’t always need successful people to mentor us. When I started up in New York, we had a similar lack of mentors in the NY tech scene and many of us ended up peer-mentoring each other, which actually worked wonders.
Mentees should not expect mentors to give miraculous answers that will solve all their problems. Mentoring is really about building a two-way relationship where both parties derive something from each other and gain the satisfaction in knowing they’ve added or derived value. Generally, good “mentors” subscribe to the Socratic method and will ask deliberate questions so that the other person can ponder and think from different perspectives to help with decision making.
Therefore, what entrepreneurs really need are a room full of smart people who are not in their day-to-day network to bounce ideas off each other, leverage different experiences and perspectives, and share challenges. Usually, verbalizing the problem statement is already half the problem solved. And that’s why we need the startup community to come out and talk to each other more. Too many Malaysian entrepreneurs are too cocooned up and don’t get enough of these valuable interactions.
How to Mentor Efficiently?
How do we manage being overwhelmed by too many requests to “meet for coffee?” How do we mentor or peer-mentor efficiently? One of the best solutions that the New York startup community created was a product called “Office Hours,” where anyone from the community can commit a number of hours a week to meet other entrepreneurs. For example, I used to do “Office Hours” from 10-12pm every other Friday and would offer four 30-minute slots to meet other entrepreneurs. A lot of entrepreneurs can start doing this and give a couple of hours back each month. I plan to start doing this at MaGIC. In fact, we’re launching a tool called dashboard in July to enable this scheduling feature.
Another tool I’ve used is clarity.fm and you can check out my profile here clarity.fm/cherylyeoh. People can list their professional expertise on Clarity and get paid to give advice to others (I’ve donated all proceeds to a charity fund). I use Clarity as a good way to 1) quantify how much time I spend mentoring others, 2) make sure the caller asks good and focused questions in a time-efficient manner (because they pay every minute of it), 3) save time instead of having to “meet for coffee,” 4) allow people from anywhere in the world to reach me, 5) know if my advice was actually beneficial since I get written feedback and ratings.
The last thing I want to introduce is this concept of finding 2-3 “traction mentors,” namely entrepreneurs who are just one or two steps ahead of you. For example, if you’re just starting out, find someone who’s built a product and raised some angel funding to help them launch. If you’re looking for seed funding, find someone who’s just raised Series A. These “traction mentors” have just recently been through your stage, and will be more relatable and in tune with current events and trends in the ecosystem. If you get mentors who’ve sold companies 5-10 years ago, even though they may be successful and powerful, they may have a different context for what you need as entrepreneurs today.
Instead of asking someone to be your mentor (which is always awkward), just establish an on-going relationship with a person you respect and make a point of asking educated questions or advice. Then follow up with your progress. Mentors get excited and want to know if their advice was actually helpful. They will likely help more if they hear feedback and progress. I’ve mentored a lot of entrepreneurs who disappear after asking me a question, and that relationship never blossomed. And the ones that persist, keeps updating me with their progress, and keep asking smart, well-researched questions that will keep getting my attention.
One of the most distinct aspects of the entrepreneurship culture in the US is that people give before they take, because they know that it’s a small community and “whatever goes around comes around.” So naturally when I’m ready and able to, I have a tendency of giving back, even when there’s no clear return value. I hope most entrepreneurs in Malaysia will adopt that philosophy and embrace mentoring because it’s crucial for the sustainability of our emerging startup ecosystem.