Finding a mentor is challenging. Making sure the relationship works is even more difficult. I tried being a good mentor and a mentee but failed at both!
As an entrepreneur and community builder, surrounding yourself with good people supporting your journey is more critical than ever. As part of my involvement with Startup Weekend Hong Kong – I have the chance to work with insightful individuals. And they are willing to share their experience!
For this first podcast, I’m discussing with Keith Ng. Keith is
When should entrepreneurs find a mentor?
You want to start as early as possible – even before launching your product. If you anticipate being launch-ready within the next three months, it is an excellent time to find a couple of great mentors. I would even suggest starting conversations at the ideation stage.
Be pro-active; challenges will arrive quickly. From team formation to finding product/market fit. You can benefit from tapping into your mentors’ experience and connections. That will help you avoid roadblocks and move faster.
I have accompanied companies from zero till the first fundraising.
Where do you find the good ones?
Finding a good mentor is like finding a suitable date – it’s a lot simpler via personal connections and referrals. Spread the word around you early on.
I have been a mentor to high-school friends, participants of Startup Weekend and Startup Grind, and introductions from friends.
I have been mentoring startups between Singapore and Hong Kong. And to share a concrete example, I met an entrepreneur a first time in Singapore. We met again in 2017 in Silicon Valley as part of a conference. We stayed in touch, and soon he invited me as a mentor. A clear case of friendship well-nurtured, turning into mentorship. It’s one of the best ways to get started.
What kind of mentors should you work with?
There are two types of mentors: the Generalist and the Specialist.
The Generalist is a mentor who has been through the startup journey themselves. They have many helpful connections and a profound understanding of what you’re going through. That’s helpful as you’re trying to find product/market fit, recruit your first employees, and try to sell to your first few customers.
The Specialist is a mentor who has a definite technical specialty. I have been mentoring startups on UI/UX, prototyping, and customer acquisition. These skills may not require full-time staff at this stage. Instead, you can tap into the experience of somebody who’s been doing this with other organizations. If there is a good match though, the Specialist might become the head of a department or lead a team as you scale.
Keep in mind that mentors might become your CXOs, early-stage investors, or member of your board. Look for well rounded and objective mentors – if they can invest, you hit the jackpot!
Keep in mind that mentors might become your CXOs, early-stage investors, or member of your board.
Any other soft skills?
Coachability. Can the mentor coach the entrepreneur? You’d want the mentor to understand you and your point of view. While not agreeing all the time, it helps to have someone on your side of the table and support your growth smartly. You’d want to get suggestions, best practices that work. You are not alone with your mentor – they can help you avoid burning out or feeling out of options.
You are saying that an entrepreneur may hire their mentors eventually, is that often the case?
Absolutely. You will want to surround yourself early on with great mentors. They will get to know you and see you in leadership roles. But they will also observe your first mistakes and how you rectify them. Most importantly, they will discover your operational style.
You don’t necessarily want to recruit them, but that can be an opportunity. If not, they can support you with long term partnerships or substantial introductions.
What is the impact that entrepreneurs can expect from mentors?
There are two kinds of mentors: the painkiller and the vitamin.
The Painkiller is a mentor that you can call (almost) anytime for (almost) anything! Obviously, it relies on strong trust and friendship. But when done right, they can help solve an immediate problem, suggest quick solutions.
The Vitamin is a long term mentor. They wouldn’t just provide encouragement and support but help you as your Chief Strategy Officer. They help you put in place your KPIs/OKRs, support the first hires, test your beta, etc. Typically, that can be a monthly coffee where you review progress and look at upcoming challenges.
How did you get started as a mentor?
The first real mentorship that I did was a few years ago already. I supported a friend who invited me. That was very casual at first, and I enjoyed it. I helped with their products, the first website, the social media presence. That helped me get more confidence and get an early taste of being a co-founder.
Then, as I learned how to better coach entrepreneurs during Startup Weekend, some participants invited me to help in a more structured manner. My style is like a friendship; I pay attention to getting to know them and having a good time too.
It often starts by helping them with their pitch deck. I help my mentees find investors and create the presentation.
Do you have mentors?
Yes and no. I don’t formally have mentors. But I do have support from certain people around me on an ad hoc basis. But I will most certainly reach out to possible mentors once I start my own business.
What do you bring to your mentees?
Most of my mentees have roughly the same age as me. We met at events or have been friends for years. Interestingly, they expect from me to be a combination of Generalist and Specialist: I will open doors (market expansion, introduction to investors), brainstorm with them (I wouldn’t be from the same industry but I have a much broader perspective and diverse range of opinions), and technical support like on their Product UI/UX, leads generation.
Each time I support a new entrepreneur, I bring all my previous experience to the table, and that helps them have access to resources that wouldn’t be readily available otherwise.
80% of my decision is based on the quality of the founders.
How do you work with
I will do my best to remove distractions from them. Founders might spend too much time on the wrong battles. Typically, deciding who is the CEO early on doesn’t make sense. The entire founding team is working together, finding its niche, making things happen.
As a mentor, I help them rank their priorities and get them into the habit of weekly reviews.
We make assumptions; they get to work, we review a week later.
I can advise, but I won’t execute, that’s not my role.
How do you pick your mentees?
It is really like joining a startup as one of the first employees. You want to look at the team. 80% of my decision is based on the quality of the founders. I know this very quickly because my mentees are typically friends.
Then I want to look at the excitement factor. I want to learn something and feel full of energy while helping the team.
If they can allocate some shares or cash for me, that’s better – but that is optional. I am still willing to help pro-bono if the founders are mindful of my time.
I don’t have a checklist; I’d make sure my network can be useful, that my skills can be a good match, and if they can follow the lean model.
How long have you been involved with startups on average? How will mentees manage that expectations with mentors?
It depends on the founders. I typically don’t make the relationship an official right at the beginning. We would first get to know each other and see how things are progressing. It is very organic, but from my side, I’d aim for the long term.
By long term, I mean 3 to 6 months at least. Or an entire cycle with: testing an idea, building a prototype, and either failing or scaling.
Thank you for reading this interview with Keith. Do you have any questions for him? Post them below or reach out via the Contact form – I’ll make sure he gets back to you!