Being a founder is lonely. Sure, you have your team (priceless!), but you also need a solid external team of supporters and advisors.
In fact, startups with advisors grew 3.5x faster and raised 7x more capital.
Mentors can be just that, mentors, formal and informal advisors, board members, investors, or other founders.
I recently had a conversation with the female founder of her eponymous line of home goods that brings in hundreds of millions a year.
Moving from the challenges with hiring talent to networking, she said at the $5-$10mm revenue range she was so head down — execute, execute, execute — managing her team, finding and hiring top talent, and probably 100 other things, that she didn’t think about networking. She didn’t have the time.
Only later, as she scaled to new heights, did she realize her circle got smaller and smaller. At a certain level, the problems bubbling up to you as CEO are ever-more complex — think about it, if the team could solve them on their own, they wouldn’t reach you. The stakes are often higher as you think through your strategic growth options. For example, when she decided to expand internationally? The circle around you that has done that or can advise may be nonexistent.
After our discussion, I was thinking, did she wait too long?
No Skipping Ahead
You often hear people say that you should build these professional relationships before you need them. They take time to cultivate.
In her case, she pushed it off. She didn’t make the time or feel she had the extra energy to dedicate to building her network.
But, you can’t push it off forever. You can’t skip this step. Nobody ever did epic sh$t alone. All the hard work and sleepless nights will only get you so far. Your team will get you most of the way and will be your daily mentors, advocates, and sounding board.
But an external team that supports, shares information and perspectives, and has deep experience and skills will take you to that next level, help you avoid costly mistakes, and make valuable introductions. They will help you uncover blind spots you may have and give you greater confidence in your decisions.
Could she have grown faster with more mentors or advisors? We can’t answer that, in this case hindsight is not 20–20, but my suspicion is yes. For example, networks may have helped her find top engineers — a big struggle early on.
When you are scaling you need to invest even more in networking — you constantly need new talent, new partners, new vendors, new clients, and more brand recognition.
First off, you want to surround yourself with those on the same trajectory.
You want to have other founders in your circle — those with similar ambitions and scale. They are an endless source of emotional support because they have been where you are and get the founder journey (more like the cyclone at Coney Island!). They get the extreme highs and lows.
They have also been there, done that. Maybe not the same industry but they have had faced similar strategic decisions. They get what wakes you up at 2am in a cold sweat. They can make referrals for your basic needs — PR, marketing, IT, lawyers, bankers, coaches, etc. They can tap their networks for top talent.
One study found that 33% of companies that were mentored by successful entrepreneurs were top performers, compared to 10% of other companies.
Here, she may have faced additional challenges as a female founder, particularly at that level. Just 1.7% of female founders generate more than $1mm in revenue. Or, for example, if you are a female founder who wants to go public, you will find that about 20 female founders have IPO’d their company among the hundreds each year that go public.
Not to say men are not equally valuable mentors — all of mine have been — but there are certain unique roadblocks and challenges that women face when building a business. At the end of the day, all founders need other founders in their circle. You can join closed communities like Entrepreneurs Organization or masterminds like War Room.
You also need a crew of mentors, advisors, board members, and investors (if you chose to go that route), etc. I leave that for another post. For now, you need to grow your circle.