Techstars – teach a man to fish

Being a guide during the start-up storm can be treacherous. Techstars’ Jon Bradford tackles the nuances of being a successful mentor.

Mentorship and accelerators are all the fashion today. At Techstars we put mentors front, middle and centre in everything we do. It is our strong opinion that the right mentorship can be massively impactful.

Jon Bradford
Techstars’ Jon Bradford

But what is it to be a mentor and what should you expect from mentorship? Just three years ago, Techstars prepared a Mentor Manifesto, which outlines some of the key principles that we expect of our mentors – and against which they are assessed. I have not listed all of them – you can find the original blog post by searching for “Mentor Manifesto” but I have drawn out a few for this blog post.


But it’s not just the act of asking questions, it’s how you ask questions, what you try to accomplish with the questions, and what your responses to the answers are.

EXPECT NOTHING IN RETURN (You’ll be delighted with what you do get back).

Mentorship is a two-way street, and when done properly it exposes you to new ideas and practises and can be massively fulfilling.


Tell the truth, however hard. This is actually harder than you might consider. If you care about the person and the company you are mentoring, being direct without being hurtful can be difficult – but it is ultimately beneficial to them.


There’s an old Irish proverb; “God gave us two ears and one mouth, so we ought to listen twice as much as we speak”. There is a lot of truth in that.


As entrepreneurs, we are highly opinionated and will regularly talk about any given topic under the sun (see below). It is dangerous for the person being mentored not to know whether your statements are based on anecdotal information or hard facts. There is the potential that teams might make decisions based on what you tell them.


Say “I don’t know” when you don’t know. “I don’t know” is preferable to bravado – you are not expected to know everything.


Teams must make their own decisions. Guide, but never tell them what to do. Understand that it’s their company, not yours. Teams are like children – it might be easy to tell them what to do, but they will never learn from that. When you are not there what will they do? The process of teaching a team to think their way through a problem is more important than the problem itself. As they say; “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, but teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.”

Finally, have empathy. Remember that start-ups are hard. Sometimes for a team, just knowing what they are going through is not unusual, and having a sympathetic person to speak to, can be good therapy.

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