This is a guest column from Alex Vidor, launching a new regular column here focusing on the perspective of a young entrepreneur…
The years since college have taken me on an unexpected journey – I was someone who went all the way up to senior year of college thinking he wanted to practice law, taking the corresponding classes and relevant test prep courses, and then I went off on a sharp tangent whose trajectory has taken me through interesting experiences that landed me smack dab in the middle of the startup ecosystem – and I love it. I’m so glad I chose the route I did, but it was mentorship that helped me walk it.
I lived in New York City for almost 4 months during the summer and fall of 2014. The company I helped to create, Lea(R)n, had been accepted into the prestigious Techstars accelerator program – this particular cohort of companies in this city (11 in total) was education focused and Techstars partnered with Kaplan, Inc. for the second year in a row. That partnership led to mentor introductions with some of the finest minds and influential thought leaders in both technology startups as a whole and education technology as a vertical.
The analogy I use to describe the Kaplan/Techstars mentorship-driven accelerator is bowling. The company ideas are the bowling ball, rolling down the lane, in search of the “perfect game,” which in this context would be the big “exit” that rewards investors with a significant multiplier of the invested dollars — oh and of course, change the world for the better through innovation… The company mentors are the bumper guards that prevent a slight misdirection from causing an otherwise strong roll to fall in the gutter – mentors in a sense help correct the assumptions and approach of the startup founders to help guard against companies that should succeed from making game-ruining missteps. They source their recommendations from personal experiences – LOTS of experiences. Building a startup into a sustainable company can be thought of as a series of decisions (rolls) and mentors can provide the support and guidance needed to keep the founders headed towards strike after strike after strike.
We’ve all used the cliché “been there, done that”, but for the individual mentors we worked with throughout and after the program, the “THAT” for them refers to accomplishments like “grew <
I made colleagues and friends for life — which is actually an articulated goal of the program — and many of those individuals continue to provide meaningful guidance and feedback as I garner success as Business Development Lead at my current company, NowSight*. Mentorship is a two-way street and I fully subscribe to the idea of sharing my learning experiences with others, especially them.
Mentorship also goes outside the confines of the business context, i.e. effective ways to market penetration, business model pivoting and capital raise negotiations, etc. Mentorship in the context of the individual is equally, if not more, important. Personally, I have benefited greatly the last few years through mentorship on “life hacks” as well, or ways to have the time I spend translate more meaningfully into experience and compensation (not always financial). One of my mentors explained to me the triangle below:
The principle is: Time (Hard Work) → translates to Experience and Money.
The power and onus to turn my time into the experience I need to reach the success I want, is mine and mine alone. Time is perishable and is the one variable in the triangle on which I have the most direct influence to change. I often ask myself how I’m using my time and how I could use it more wisely. I am fortunate to have found mentors who understand and can relate to my learning style, my strengths & weaknesses and even my ADHD, and have worked with me to build structure in my life that helps me focus on what needs to get done today to achieve my long-term goals (and guess who helped me figure out those goals?!). A sharp learning curve is needed but so are the skills to keep that curve steep and growing steeper – finding mentors that share “life hacks” to sharpen the curve are invaluable.
When I look back, it has been a series of seemingly random events that have led me from potential law student to entrepreneur. But when I rise above the timeline and look down at the hash marks that represent milestones or events that catalyzed my life for the better, there is a common and strikingly obvious pattern – there were mentors involved at each point.
In my mind, entrepreneurship goes hand-in-hand with the “pay it forward” mentality. Many of my colleagues who live the rollercoaster life of entrepreneurship were helped just as I was and agree with that statement. I recently began paying it forward in one form as an Entrepreneur in Residence at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. I also meet frequently with colleagues and explain to them the lessons that my mentors taught me that week. One day I will be able to payback my mentors for their selfless acts of generosity, kindness and concern for my well-being, but for now I pay it forward through my own form of mentorship to whomever I can. The cycle continues!
To those currently mentoring anyone in any capacity, the world needs and appreciates you. Thank you.
To those currently and previously mentoring me, I need and appreciate you. Thank you, George Taylor, Adam Burke, Karl Rectanus and everyone else.
He is a former marketing strategist, national political operative, and lobbyist.
Todd has published five books, writes a business + lifestyle column, is a distance runner, and lives in Chicago with his wife Stephanie + family.