As the culture of entrepreneurship continues its shift from reliance on paid consultants to volunteer mentors, we collectively cheer about the money we’re saving. But, this shift trades one problem for another. Mentors’ time is perhaps more precious than money. Yet, our startup communities are hopelessly inefficient in turning mentors’ expertise into good startup-company outcomes.
If your community doesn’t adapt, you are in danger of burning through your mentors’ goodwill, and your startups will increasingly be left to fend for themselves.
Why? The learning model in which we are stuck is based on one-to-one exchange of intuitive impressions that experts share with startups. This has two implications:
(1) Mystery. Many experts in startup communities insist the difference between a fundable strategy and a one that cannot attract funding is like the difference between art and porn. “I know it when I see it,” they’ll tell you. (Smut, like a good strategy, is difficult to define in the abstract.)
(2) Access. This type of learning relies on high caliber experts who are gifted in applying their intuition to the unique strategic challenges of a given startup. Mentors’ volunteer time is a scarce and carefully guarded resource. This makes sense; we are making novice entrepreneurs much faster than we are making new, kick-ass mentors.
Mystery creates efficiency problems. Access constraints are a symptom is a growing supply and demand imbalance in our communities. The intuition our communities rely on as the wellspring of entrepreneurial learning doesn’t scale. Until we address this issue, our communities cannot scale either.
Until recently, entrepreneurs and VCs had a relationship like Dark Ages serfs had with monks in their libraries. Back in 2004, I was given a ~100 page binder on venture capital financings. It was put together by some generous deal attorneys in Austin. For over half a decade it was a unique and prized possession of mine. It was the equivalent of a pre-Gutenberg book.
Venture financing education has come a long way since then, via online resources from Mark Suster, Paul Graham and Y Combinator, and books like Venture Deals. We’ve entered the age of the printing press. But, any entrepreneur worth her salt will tell you success in business isn’t found in any blog or book.
Where the rubber meets the road—entrepreneurs getting feedback from mentors (and potential investors) on their strategy specifically—we’re still stuck. It’s still a process based on the mysterious intuition of experts. Mystery slows down learning. It means mentors too often get bogged down in the basics, wasting valuable time. Startups get “whiplashed” by mentors only because mentors’ rationale is opaque.
Mystery is an enemy of a scalable learning environment.
The promise of access to a meticulously curated group of the best mentors drove roughly 1200 applicants to seek one of the 12 spots in the the TechStars Boulder 2012 class. Many companies, Valid Eval included, coveted that access.
For 1188 of us, the message we got was unambiguous: “Sorry, Folks! Park’s closed.”
We found the “moose out front” a poor substitute for helpful mentoring.
Our options: (1) go back to painful, slow, risky trial-and-error, or (2) network like demons for the opportunity to burn time in coffee shops hoping to gain a pearl or two of wisdom from the mentors willing to meet with us.
As the demand for mentors climbs in our communities, the supply of learning opportunities for each individual startup decreases. The pent-up demand cannot be met by making more experts in the short- or medium-term. Events like Open Coffees, Boulder Beta, the Open Angel Forum, and tech meetups help increase the velocity of collisions between mentors and those seeking their help, but they don’t do a thing to address the fundamental shortage of mentor expertise available to the burgeoning legions of entrepreneurs who need their help.
We need a force-multiplier, not more get-togethers. We need more efficient learning solutions.
Successful startup communities will morph into scalable community-based learning environments.
First, we need to surface the tacit knowledge of our experts. We structure that knowledge and collectively work to improve the rubrics we use to measure startups’ strategies. Startups and mentors enjoy a common “language” and startup fluency improves. This makes interactions more meaningful and substantive. Once the Mystery falls away, real growth is possible.
With efficient, evidence-based workflows, experts can help more entrepreneurs achieve more progress in the same amount of time: efficiency. Known-good rubrics, which rely on evidence rather than intuition, make it less necessary to rely so heavily on elite mentors. Near-experts (and even peers!) can provide valuable, actionable feedback. Thus, the pool of people who can be helpful to a given startup expands. Efficiency and an expanded pool of mentors eases Access problems.
Mystery and Access don’t have to be constraints to our startups’ learning. We deserve communities that don’t rely on one-to-one intuition exchange to foster development.