Nader Sabry is strategist, innovator and entrepreneur in NASA space tech, government, and health/wellness. He is also the author of "Ready Set Growth Hack: A beginners guide to growth hacking success" which is a growth blueprint for organisations to achieve 10x growth.
There are key ingredients essential for startups to operate successfully. They include investment, good talent, navigable regulations and crucially, customers.
One important ingredient that is just as essential but often overlooked is mentorship. Starting a business is no easy feat. It occupies every moment of the day, there is no such thing as a work-life balance in the early days of founding a startup. Those lucky enough to have a co-founder can go through the highs and lows together, but for solo founders, it can be a lonely, difficult and at times depressing endeavor.
At the heart of effective mentorship lies the transfer of wisdom gained through experience. Startup founders, especially those venturing into uncharted territories face many uncertainties, challenges and tough choices. A seasoned mentor can guide a founder through this journey, drawing from their own experience to help them navigate obstacles more confidently and avoid common pitfalls. Mentorship nurtures a sense of community and connectivity - a lifeline in what can be a lonely and isolating life of an entrepreneur, especially for first time founders. A good mentor becomes a trusted confidant, a sounding board for ideas and source of encouragement during the inevitable lows. This sort of emotional support can be transformative.
But perhaps most importantly, good mentors provide access to their networks. Established mentors bring with them their connections built over years of industry engagement. Introductions to potential investors, partners or customers are part of the mentorship package, which offers founders access to resources that might otherwise remain out of reach.
However, there is a dearth of good mentors in the Middle East. The culture of “paying it forward” is not as pronounced here as it is in other vibrant ecosystems around the world, which can make finding a good mentor difficult.
To ensure good mentorship you need:
- Compensation. Good mentors who give their time and advice ought to be compensated. This may be a controversial stance, but where there is money involved, it provides mentors with a vested interest in the success of the founder. Compensation does not necessarily mean paying mentors for their time, it could be giving some equity in the business. By attaching a financial component, mentors are more likely to dedicate focused time and effort to mentoring, which in turn enhances the quality of guidance. Startup ecosystems require active mentorship to flourish and expecting mentors to offer their time for free indefinitely might deter potential mentors from participating.
- Consistency. One off mentorship sessions rarely provide the sort of insight and guidance that can create impact. You cannot solve a problem in one session. The first mentorship session tends to be introductions, mentor and mentee getting to know each other. The second session will look at the problem in more depth, providing context to it and the next sessions will focus on exploring options. The sessions following that will analyse the effects of the options that were tried out. This all requires a lot of effort and a “one off” session will not be enough to create tangible value.
How to pick a mentor:
- Reach out strategically. If you have a small network, it can be difficult knowing where to start. An effective way to pick a mentor is to find someone who has been in your position, who understands your field or sector and send a message outlining the problem you are facing and the attempts you have taken to solve it and ask if they would be willing to meet to hear their thoughts on the problem you are facing.
- Diversity in mentors. There is a temptation to pick mentors you are familiar or comfortable with, but founders need to find mentors who can tap into different expertise and offer advice on areas they struggle with. Founders should have a range of different mentors for different aspects of their role - one who can advise on how to deal with their team, another for strategy or finance as an example.
- Listen with caution. There is no formula for success and good mentors know this. Instead, good mentors get to know the entrepreneur and learn how to guide them, not solve the problem. It is the job of a mentor to offer insights from their own experience that entrepreneurs can draw from. There are a lot of people who work in corporate jobs who decide to mentor to escape their routine. This is great from a goodwill perspective, but the challenge is they come with very corporate ideas, which makes sense for the world they inhabit, but for an entrepreneur this can be misaligned. Mentors who come from a corporate background need to make the effort to learn more about entrepreneurship first.
Mentorship cultivates a culture of continuous learning for both mentor and mentee. It encapsulates a blend of practical guidance, emotional support and strategic foresight. The region needs to have more structured mentorship programmes for entrepreneurship, which can offer a hybrid compensation model to ensure accessibility for early stage founders without deep pockets. But whether free or paid, the focus should remain on the quality of guidance, the mentor’s ability to offer relevant insights and the mentee’s willingness to learn and grow.