Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Mentoring: An Opportunity to Positively Impact Business

Written by Ann Revell-Pechar as part of CED's Venture Mentoring Service: Stories from the Front Lines Series.

fter having started a couple of companies on his own, Walt Clarke, Director of Lookout Ventures and Lookout Capital, decided he wanted to get those creative juices flowing again. Having learned so much through his first two ventures, Clarke decided that 2012 would be the year to share that experience. It was time to get re-involved.

Walt was active in CED, and after having coffee with Jay Bigelow one day he decided to start attending some of CED’s Venture Mentor Service (VMS) meetings. Eventually, he found his first mentee: PhytoPharmacon.

“What a great experience that was,” gushed Clarke. “When I first started, I wasn’t sure what value I could bring to the entrepreneur, exactly. But so many are facing the same problems that it gets easier over time – different businesses, but the same problems.”

Clarke’s experience was pretty typical for a mentor, where he becomes part of a group of three or four mentors assigned to a company. After each venture company presents to the full group, mentors identify their interest in working with the founder. Bigelow identifies an appropriate team from those that raise their hands, assembling relevant industry experience and professionals that offer a breadth of expertise based on a variety of skill sets. The most senior mentor in each group becomes the lead.

There have been at least four companies that Clarke has mentored thus far. They all come with a list of things they need help with, but the first step is always for the mentors to listen. Then they step back, talk through the business’ current situation and make sure everyone understands where they want to go. Sometimes the entrepreneur is right about the direction, but often they haven’t developed in the areas in which they need the most help.

“We always take a macro view first, then offer guidance… then we get to the specific issues the entrepreneur came to us for help with,” said Clarke. “One company, for example, thought they needed help with fundraising. What they really needed was to change the overall business strategy first, before they ever set a foot out on the fundraising trail. We helped with that, and now they’re ready to raise their first round. Where once they were a science project, now they’re a business.”

Clarke feels good about his efforts. He and his fellow mentors have an opportunity to positively impact someone’s business. They help entrepreneurs reconcile the business they think they’re in. They help great scientists become less naïve about the business world. Most help founders think through what really needs to be in the business plan, and how to chisel the elevator pitch into a work of art.

Clarke says that entrepreneurs aren’t as aware of CED’s VMS as they should be. They may get advice from somewhere – Chamber of Commerce, networking events – “…  but it’s mostly someone trying to sell you something. VMS is absolutely not that. Those involved are not allowed to try to sell a service; it’s just not done. VMS is group of experienced entrepreneurs and executives that really want to help. That’s what makes it different; that’s what makes it truly unique.”

Of course, there are a number of entrepreneurial resources available in the RTP area, but Clarke sees the new endeavors as complimentary to CED VMS.

“Many companies who start in incubators come to CED for help because CED is where the expertise lies,” he says. “Incubators are more of a community environment of entrepreneurs. They’re really important, but offer a different value. The community they work in is fast paced and youthful; the CED VMS program provides the grey haired advice and wealth of experience you need when you’re starting a business.”

When CED asked Clarke if he’d recommend VMS, and if so for whom, his response was quick: “Yeah - I’d recommend it to me!” If I had it to do over again I would absolutely plug in to this as an entrepreneur. Anyone who’s got an idea that they’ve thought through, and they think it’s time to take that step off the cliff -- VMS is a great resource.”

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