“Being an entrepreneur isn’t an easy job,” says Andres Teran, cofounder of Toplist, a social shopping recommendation startup. “There are moments that you have nothing and feel like things are never going to getting better.”
Teran is referring to the days before his company’s vital pivot point, when he and his team had dedicated their lives to creating a site they loved with features they themselves would want.
“Toplist, before being an app, was a website where people shuffled around cool products curated by their own interests,” says Teran. “We worked hard to develop this cool site with great features that showed amazing products. After we launched the site, though, we noticed people didn’t use all the great features we had built for them. They weren’t engaging with the amazing content we had curated for them. Worst of all, they weren’t coming back to use our service.”
At that point, his team set out to raise capital for what they had built, hoping to secure enough money for marketing, hires and anything else it might take to help the concept catch on. But, with low user numbers, the Internet odds were stacked against them and time was running out. No one fronted the cash.
“We were just about to let everything go and end the project when we landed a meeting with the CEO of a micro-credit company that had just gone public in Mexico to see if he wanted to be involved as an angel investor in our company,” says Teran.
It was the only lead they had, and soon, he would become the first investor. But not in the company’s current state. First, there were essential pivots to be made, honest realizations to be had and hard-earned advice to be taken. The Toplist team needed an outside perspective and some guidance to find their way.
“On that day, he made us realize two things,” says Teran. “One, the product we had been working so hard on did not work for the users; we thought it would, but it didn’t. Two, not everything was a complete failure: We had learned a lot about how to build products that people could be engaged with, we learned about working together as a team. We had learned from our mistakes actually.”
What was supposed to be a pitch meeting turned out to be a crucial pivot point for Toplist — one that wouldn’t have happened without the right guidance and advice. Teran’s team took the feedback seriously, made the necessary changes and their luck started to change. The company’s new and influential mentor had saved just saved them from near failure.
“Before we left his office, he said that if we changed our project into something more attractive he would definitely invest,” says Teran. “Sometimes you need someone else to honestly point out what is wrong. We were amazed by his good will.
He could have just said, ‘No,’ and we would have gone on with our failure and him with his success. But he took our side.
He could have just said, ‘No,’ and we would have gone on with our failure and him with his success. But he took our side.”
Mentorship has been a hot topic in the startup world for years, with incubator and accelerator programs offering it — among other things — in exchange for stock in founders’ ideas. Outside of incubators though, finding a good mentor is challenging. But finding the right mentor is a lesson in luck, persistence and not letting opportunities pass you by.
“We did look for mentorship before we found someone that was right,” says Teran, explaining that his company’s mentor was discovered by chance. “I think the way to go is talk with people that can give you advice on certain topics and, most important of all, help you to make good decisions.
A big thing, though, is not to obsess about finding mentorship, because you could lose focus on what’s really important as an entrepreneur — executing the concept,” he says.
So how do you stumble upon your own honest and willing mentor without losing sight of your first priority (your company)?
“Good mentors will be hard to track down, and their time is extremely limited,” says Brett Hagler, cofounder of Hucksley, a marketplace for discovering one-of-a-kind brands. “Reach out creatively and always try to take the ‘backdoor’ approach by getting introduced through a mutual contact. Certain platforms such as LinkedIn allow you to have direct access to your targeted mentors. Always be creative on your specific ask and make it as relevant and direct as possible.”
Look hard for a mentor and network as much as possible, but don’t make finding a mentor your primary focus. Perhaps Sheryl Sandberg said it best in Lean In: you don’t need a mentor to excel, “Excel and you will get a mentor.”
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