When to Say ‘No’ to Elon Musk

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If you’re a bold entrepreneur, your dream mentors may be Elon Musk, Richard Branson or Larry Page. While they may be amazing mentors, are they the right ones for you at this point in time?

“I talked to many people and entrepreneurs and met an owner of a Singapore public-listed company whose revenues have reached over S$400 million, and got him as my mentor. After several mentoring sessions, I realized that my business was too small for him to offer advice that I can immediately apply. Metaphorically speaking, ‘I needed advice from [a] helicopter’s point of view. What he gave was advice from God’s point of view.’ I’m thinking about how to grow my business beyond S$3 million to a S$10 million company sustainably without stress, while he is thinking about how to structure and sell my business for S$100 million,” says Moonshi Mohsenruddin, founder of CommGate and director at Echelon Minds.

Despite his humble beginnings – dropping out of school and starting out as a toilet cleaner to support his family – Moonshi became a celebrity entrepreneur in Asia in 2010, and has since received countless requests from young entrepreneurs for mentorship. Of the 26 companies he took under his wing over a period of four years, most have achieved up to 700 percent revenue growth and broken their first million-dollar revenue mark.

Moonshi shares his advice on the best mentors for entrepreneurs:

“If you are a startup, your mentor should at least have a business that had achieved $1 million revenues, is profitable, and have at least hired 10 to 20 people in their business. We need to get a mentor who is three to five times the size of our business and someone who has ‘been there, done that’ – preferably in the same industry, or someone who is in business and can ask you high-value and thought-provoking questions. If your mentor runs a growing and large business, the mentor may not have much time to meet you regularly or his advice may not be immediately relevant.”

So, if you are an entrepreneur seeking mentorship, here’s what you should start doing instead:

  • Make a list of 50 people who have started companies in your industry that are three to five times the size of your business.
  • When your list is complete, reach out to them asking for 10 to 60 minutes of their time to ask for advice.
  • When asking for advice, be specific, concise and realistic.

As an entrepreneur, you may be tempted to get mentors who are successful on paper, but whose values may not fit with yours. Melody Ward, a serial entrepreneur who started her first company at the age of 18, shares her experience with getting successful mentors:

“My best mentors are not all rich or famous. I’ve been lucky enough to sit at tables with well-known and influential people who have taught me a lot, but I’m selective when I choose someone in a position of authority over my life.

“You are not looking for someone who is going to give you a handout or a magic trick. You are looking for someone who recognizes where you are in your career and is able to give you advice. A really good mentor works to know who you are and will easily give you advice that fits.

“It’s easy to mistake someone who seems to have what you are looking for as an automatic mentor. When you see someone on CNN or with a million followers online, you know they’re ambitious and have probably worked hard to get where they are, but that doesn’t tell you anything about their personality or social tactics behind the projection, and that’s really important if you are going to work with someone to mold a life you’ll feel comfortable and proud of living.

“My aim is not to inherit status-by-association. I look for someone who has a track record of success and adversity, and especially someone who has attained their notoriety through direct practice of their expertise.

“My best mentors never needed my money because they were more interested in similar goals, and that typically evolves into friendship, which is what you keep.”

Take a look at this list of values and pick the most important ones for you.

You can now make yourself a checklist to assess if the potential mentors you contacted are the right fit:

  1. Do they have a company that is two to three times the size of yours?
  2. Do they have the direct practice and experience that you’re looking for?
  3. Do their values match with yours?
  4. Do they understand what you need?

If you want to learn more about how to find the mentors you’re looking for, check out www.seektokeep.com for more articles.

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Noam Kostucki and Lujie Chen are co-authors of Seek to Keep: How to Find the Best Mentors and Keep Them, which comes out in May. Chen is also a graduate student in Stanford’s Department of Management Science & Engineering.

One Comment

  1. Aaron Sylvan says:

    Absolutely fantastic points, about 3-5x your size! (Though I might lean towards suggesting 10x.) The point is that a mentor whose business is 100x or 1000x your size will (a) not be available, and (b) not be useful. They’re unlikely to even *remember* how to get a company past the stage you’re in. (Or they did it so many years ago, that the same tactics might no longer be applicable in today’s world.)

    Mentors need to have personalities and tactics which are consistent with your VALUES, and their experience needs to be relevant. BTW, I personally know a mentor who has a very abrasive public persona (but is super-kind, thoughtful, and considerate privately)… and another who is the reverse (like “everyone’s friend” in public, but quite caustic when nobody’s around). Don’t assume that someone’s “public brand identity” is the same as their private personality. Do assume that successful people are often “extremes” of something, so if they rub you the wrong way they’ll be an *extremely* bad match, but if they jive with you they can be an *extremely* valuable guide.

    But if you’re trying to crack $1M revenue (or $100k), don’t go fantasizing about guidance from CEOs of companies in the $50M, $500M, $5B range… they don’t even know how to help, at your scale. Find someone 3-10x your size.

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