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The Mentors You Don't Know You Need

Mentors DSM

June 7, 2019

If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. — Sir Isaac Newton 

Ask for money and get advice; ask for advice, get money twice. — Pitbull  

Prior to a few years ago, I hadn’t had much experience with mentors. I had started companies and pitched investors and listened for feedback, but the idea of a mentor personally invested in the success of a near-stranger was as foreign to me as the concept of Roman patronage.  

Through the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center (JPEC) at the University of Iowa I had met a few people who were eager to give advice, but no one who cared to get to know me or was invested in my vision — at the time, a novel system that would prevent cell network overload in an emergency. 

My First Mentor 

Neil was an adviser to entrepreneurs in the program. He had most recently been a Director of Engineering at Rockwell Collins and had worked in cellular communications in the 70s and 80s during the heroic age of wireless networking. I had just mothballed my wISP after struggling for four years to bring high-speed Internet access to southeast Iowa and was eager to share stories of swinging from towers and scaling the sides of grain silos with ethernet cable in my teeth like a confused Errol Flynn. We clicked almost immediately. 

Neil stuck with me through a lot of confusion and setbacks as I tried to get my bearings as a founder. I had started companies before, but never considered myself a “founder” in the strictest sense of the word. He helped me through my imposter syndrome after adding electrical engineering to my economics studies. He helped me with my designs, offering invaluable advice and recounting the development of wireless communications protocols and electronics histories that put what I was trying to do in a fuller context.  As we continued to meet and get to know one-another, Neil also became a good friend. 

Moving Forward 

In fact, it was Neil who drew my attention to the problem of high piglet mortality rates.  As my focus shifted to technologies that would keep piglets alive, it was Neil who encouraged me to start a company and go for it. He offered to make introductions to people he knew that could provide feedback, customer discovery opportunities and industry connections. 

Months later, as our company got some traction, we were accepted into the IATA and, as part of the program, were matched with advisers through a process aptly called “mentor speed-dating.”  For two weeks we filled schedules a half hour at a time with a panoply of potential mentors from diverse backgrounds and professions.   

Mentors in Different Industries 

As I met executives, investors, marketers and entrepreneurs from a variety of industries and pitched to dozens of potential matches, I was surprised to find the mentors I hit it off with weren’t necessarily from the pork industry or even from agricultural backgrounds. We clicked for different reasons: an insurance company executive who could teach me about servant leadership; a marketing director who saw the grand narrative of our company mission; a former COO who challenged me to lead the company I was building; an investor who knew how to keep me from chasing butterflies and commit to my core tech. 

As the program ended, those mentors also became friends, some of whom became advisory board members and then board members and investors in our seed round. 

I have learned over the past few years just how valuable relationships with great mentors can be for a founder and how rewarding they can be personally. Mentors know you first as the aspiring world-beater and later as friends; they will always be there to give you a kick when you are stuck or cheer you on when you are marching to the next battle. They are the ones that give you the cheat codes; the inside perspective that allows you to act appropriately in unfamiliar situations. 

Most importantly though, they are the ones that spend their most precious resource — time — to help along the eager entrepreneurs and executives who will someday become mentors themselves. 

Want to be a mentee or a mentor? Learn more and sign up at the Greater Des Moines Partnership’s Mentor Connection.  

Looking for tools to help grow your startup or small business? Visit the Small Business Resources Hub to find the information you need.