Optimising The Startup Funnel With Pre-Startup Mentorship

Last month saw Y Combinator bring their Startup School programme to Europe for the first time. Typically seen as the most successful startup accelerator in the world, YC companies now boast an estimated market cap of $30bn. But now that accelerators like YC are producing successful startups, is it time to optimise earlier in the startup funnel?

One of the key ways that YC helps companies is to give them access to a network of mentors, the YC partners, who support them throughout. By conducting office hours, partners are able to critique, advise and generally help the founders in any way they can. This has proven to be a successful model. This model however starts at a point where a team is together, the founders are full time and the idea has matured.

One of the interesting observations at Europe’s Startup School is that many of the attendees were not yet founders, but rather aspiring founders. By this I mean people who are at the pre-startup stage. These are the future founders who are young, technically skilled, entrepreneurial minded, but yet to take the jump and drop everything to pursue their startup dreams.

As I spoke to fellow aspiring founders at Startup School Europe, I asked many of them if they had a mentor. Someone who they speak to regularly for critique on their work or side project? Someone to give them advice on their next career move? Someone to help them make the jump to entrepreneurship? The overwhelming answer, no 1.

If mentorship is such a key aspect of accelerators such as YC, Seedcamp and Springboard, then shouldn’t all aspiring founders also have mentors? There seems to be a weakness in this cycle in the way that it ignores young aspiring founders, the people who are next to step into the title of ‘founder’.

Being a startup founder is very difficult and simply taking the jump doesn’t qualify you to be a good startup founder (it does qualify your appetite for risk). By offering mentorship to high potential aspiring founders at the pre-startup stage we could help them transition to entrepreneurship, minimise the risk of failure and optimise the success of the startups that emerge as a result 2.

Entrepreneur First is an interesting programme that has emerged to fill this gap. Rather than accepting already formed startups, they recruit technical talent who are pre-team and pre-startup. They screen aspiring founders for the best talent and specifically help high potential candidates with advice, support and mentorship. In their own words “since 2012, we’ve taken 60 individuals. They have built 20 startups now worth over $80million. 4 EF startups have been funded by Y Combinator.” That is a promising start for a programme that is only three years old 3.

And EF is just the begining. You could imagine other forms of pre-startup programmes that many aspiring founders could benefit from. An after work programme for informal mentorship and collaboration for example. The gap between aspiring founder and full time founder is a huge mentorship opportunity which is yet to be realised.

Amongst all the takeaways of Startup School, I hope many of the aspiring founders in attendance realised the power of good mentorship. As the tech scene in London matures, applying mentorship earlier in the startup funnel may be one way through which we can improve outcomes for startups. I for one will certainly be making a greater effort to find my own mentors.

 

(1) Admittedly, I'm drawing this result from a small and possibly skewed sample. It would be great to know if this is true across the board and not just amongst my small network. Are London's aspiring founders not getting, or not seeking, the mentorship they need? It would be great to know what you think. Let me know @stevanpopo.
(2) If there was more focus on mentorship of aspiring founders at the pre-startup stage you could imagine a wealth of benefits:
- Mentorship will act as a vetting process for aspiring founders. Mentors could qualify the more promising founders and help them into entrepreneurship. (nb - It is hard to be a founder. You have to have lots of qualities.)
- Mentors would be able to help high potential candidates with a successful transition. When is right to leave your job or school? Is there a market for your idea? When to move from side-project to startup company? etc.
- Each of those aspiring founders will be able to learn valuable lessons around key topics such as product development, customer development, funding etc.
- Mentors can help founders know what startups are really like. Founders would better understand the challenges and risks.
(3) If you're interested in the EF programme the co-founder Matt Clifford has a great post on the first three years of EF here.

*This post has been shared on Medium and is available to recommend here. Thank you to my friend, designer and aspiring founder Andoni Georgiou for proofreading.