To Avoid An Entrepreneur's Biggest Dealbreaker, Find A Mentor

By Michael Smerklo

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com on December 5, 2017 where Michael Smerklo is a regular contributor.

Entrepreneurs walking into a meeting with potential investors are usually armed to the teeth with data points about their business idea. Looking to avoid investors’ dealbreakers, most spend hours prepping for questions about their competitors and the market size for their product.

 Michael Smerklo, co-founder and managing director of Next Coast Ventures

Michael Smerklo, co-founder and managing director of Next Coast Ventures

However, when entrepreneurs sit down with me to talk about investing, I ask them two seemingly unusual questions that can make or break my decision:

‘Can you tell me what mentors you have now? How do you lean on these relationships to help solve any key problem you are facing?’

Why hang so much on a question that has nothing to do with a business model? Because unlike any other profession, being an entrepreneur means fully committing to the successes and failures of an enterprise. The roller coaster of emotions that an entrepreneur faces is staggering. There are extreme highs that bring moments of euphoria and excitement, followed quickly by extreme lows—often in the same day—that breed crippling self-doubt.

It is a heavy, heavy burden and one that you should not bear on your own. In order to not only be able to pick yourself up after these roadblocks, but to move on constructively, you must have one simple thing: a mentor. There is no way around it.

It could be a loss of a major customer, a new unexpected competitor or an unfortunate series of poor judgment calls that can short circuit your confidence and leave you questioning your ability to remain as captain of the ship. Mentors give you the context, guidance and support you need when you may not know how to move forward. Without them, you are blindly riding the roller coaster instead of using the latest GPS technology to navigate the best path.

Now I have to admit, acknowledging I needed to curate a support system to give me guidance during these troubling times in my own entrepreneurial journey was one moment of realization. But being able to actually swallow my pride, ask peers for help and incorporate their advice into my business practices was a whole different obstacle to overcome.

Soliciting this type of help is not a weakness, it is a strength. Pride has no place when it comes to building your mentor-mentee relationships.

I remember early on in my career I took my first operating role with a then-unknown CEO named Ben Horowitz. I was tasked with hiring team members and was frustrated with how many interviews my star candidates were forced to go through just to get an offer. I had always thought I was great at spotting talent and didn’t understand why I was unable to get handle on the hiring process. So I complained to Ben—loudly, as usual—about this seemingly unnecessarily elongated exercise. I will never forget his response. He had seen the culture get eroded at Netscape by a failed hiring process and he was committed not to repeat it, he told me: ‘The first 10 employees are key, they hire the next 50 employees. And once that is done, the culture of the organization is largely set. That is why we are so focused on making sure we all hire great employees from the start.’

That type of advice from a mentor is invaluable and was incredibly important to me not just when I first heard it, but also a few years later when I was starting out as a first-time CEO. But taking that advice meant I had to step back, swallow my pride and recognize how little I knew about building a culture and an organization. Once you have your first powerful mentor-mentee moment like this, it becomes easier to see the value of these relationships.

So now that you’ve realized you need a mentor and you are willing to be open about your self-doubt, now what? Picking an effective mentor requires just as much self-reflection.

There are three things you should look for when tracking down a mentor:

  • Somebody who knows you and understands how you think
  • Somebody who understands the subject matter that you are dealing with
  • Somebody who has the wherewithal to give you objective advice

A mentor that encompasses these three attributes will be able to help you get to the root of the issue, empower you to regain your courage and equip you with tools to go back to doing what you do best: building an outstanding business.

Once I realized that I needed to be on the lookout for mentors like these, I naturally became more enthusiastic, self-aware and open to networking. Sure, I proactively sought out these relationships at industry events or through my existing network, but as I humbled myself and opened up to the idea of asking for help, these beneficial relationships also began to happen organically. It’s not just about blindly asking people on LinkedIn for coffee, it’s about approaching people with as much thoughtfulness and consideration as you would potential investors for your dream business.

As my mentorship network grew, I realized that each mentor offered me a different perspective and that the more data points I had, the clearer my vision was of how to move forward.

That’s why having one mentor is necessary, but having half a dozen is fantastic.

Building these types of judgment-free relationships is an endeavor that lasts a lifetime, and like any good relationship, having a strong network takes upkeep. It’s an active exercise, not a passive one. Just as you evolve as an entrepreneur, your mentorship circle should evolve as your business and personal needs change.

For example, when I was first getting started, it was critical for me to get advice from those who were highly engaged in startups and understood all the key issues that getting a business off the ground entails. Simple suggestions about hiring, board meeting agendas or what payroll systems work best all helped me avoid mistakes others had already made and also saved me countless hours.

However, when my company was a more mature and I was working to shift my business model, I proactively shifted my mentorship circle.

For instance, Ben’s advice on hiring was critical to me when I was going through the startup phase and hiring the first 50 employees. However, the ‘critical’ input I needed running a 3,000 person, publicly traded business was much different. I found myself needing to recalibrate my mentorship network. So I—once again—made sure my humility was still fully intact and proactively sought out seasoned, C-suite executives to help guide me through this new phase of my career.

Whenever I am fortunate enough to retire and look back at the ups and downs of my career, I am going to have a lot of thank you notes to write. Without my mentors, it wouldn’t have just been a dealbreaker for some investors I met along the way, it would have been a dealbreaker for my career. So do some self-reflection, check your pride at the door and seek out those who will be able to make you a better entrepreneur, and a better person. It is the weak leader who believe they need to do it all themselves.