Adnan Faisal on The Role of Mentoring in a Startup’s journey

Malaika Fawad
Publish Date:
March 20, 2019

Sayyed Ahmad Masud: Hello everyone!

We are very excited to start a new series of Podcasts called Elephant in The Room.

The Elephant in The Room looks at the hidden aspects of the Startup Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Pakistan. The things that people don’t talk about and the things that must be addressed if we want to take the nation forward.

Our startup scene has warmed up considerably over the previous few years, but we still have not seen major, great success stories coming out of the system. What are the reasons? It is probably still too early to say but today we are going to discuss about the role of mentoring, and coaching in a Startup’s growth.

Today we have with us Adnan Faisal. A person who has launched startups, has worked with startups, has coached startups and who is also responsible for helping many Pakistani Startups go International. Adnan currently is the general manager of the Technology Incubation Centre, at NUST Islamabad.

The Elephant in the Room with Adnan Faisal – Why Everyone is Not a Mentor

Sayyed Ahmad Masud:: Assalam o Alaikum Adnan, I hope you are doing good?

Adnan Faisal:Walaikum Salam, I am very well and thank you for inviting me!

Sayyed Ahmad Masud:: So we thought quite hard about who should be the first person, that we should invite, when we launch the series Elephant in The Room and the first person that came to my mind was you.Because we have had extensive discussions on a number of topics on how we can improve the ecosystem in Pakistan and one of the things that we have talked the most about was the role of mentoring and coaching since both of us are workinginareas related to startups and face similar frustrations. So, can you explain to me, what do you think is the role of a mentor in a startup’s journey? and how important is it?

Adnan Faisal: I believe that innovation is another name for quality and quality is a subjective, intangible concept and this primarily comes from human injection of value, be it in processing, be it in approach, be it in your methodology. So, that qualitative uplift or value addition, which is the fuel of the whole Innovation ecosystem, comes from the founder or from the mentors and the coaches that they work with. I would say that mentorship or coaching is basically the second most important ingredient after the founder behind the success of any startup or even the whole startup ecosystem.

Sayyed Ahmad Masud:: But when we talk about a mentor, and when we talk about a mentor being associated directly with the quality they offer,what are the qualities that a good mentor should have?

Adnan Faisal: This is very important, before I go to mentors specifically, I would say, that the mentorship process by itself is also very important. There has to be a consistent level of engagement. You see, from point A to point B, there are multiple paths. Let’s assume that there are six paths before reaching to that point B. Everyone has their own way to sort of carve through those paths to success. Now if the mentor is not consistent, or if the founders are changing mentors, what happens is that each one would be talking the same thing but it would be different segments of different paths and what happens is that the foundersometimes, gets confused, they don’t get that clarity which is required for identifying the right path. Which brings us to the distinction of a mentor and a coach.

A mentor could have occasional topical interactions with you, but with respect to carving out the path to success,it is the founder whotakes the ownership of success. A coach is someone who is consistently engaged. So, if we look at all these great tennis players, they attribute their success to their coach’s engagement. This is because the coach is playing upon the strengths and the weaknesses of individual founders as well as maintaining a consistent strategy to achieve success. So, having talked about that particular process aspect, I would like to highlight what each mentor and founder is expected to provide.

As I said there are multiple paths to success, now even when one particular path is identified, that path to success is a zigzag path. And that zigzag also brings in the innovation which is basically the hallmark for differentiating the advantage of the startup. The Zigzag is important, keeping it in a channel is what a mentor or advisor is also consistently expected to do for the startup. What happens is that if a quality mentor is not consistently engaged with a startup, the zigzag sometimes goes so much to the zig part or the zag part, that coming back takes long enough to cash burn the startup into extinction.

Finally, coming to the specific attributes of mentors and advisors, I think it depends on the stage of a particular startup. I have a habit of scaling everything within a say 100 unit or a percentage, based in discussion. If a startup is into say one third, or thirty, thirty three percent of its journey, a generic mentor is much more important and relevant.

Sayyed Ahmad Masud:: By generic you mean a business mentor.

Adnan Faisal: I would say someone who has a considerably broad understanding of business by that I mean thebusiness of technology, i.e. but has more of a management strategy perspective to think through the organizational structure or the niche. A Startup mentor needs to be able to guide the startup which particular areas to focus on, he or she may not be positioned to exactly tell how to excel in an area but identifying which particular areas are important and which particular dimensions need to be captured. So that the framework that is established is the right framework and that framework serves as the foundation. In that sense the breadth of knowledge of the mentor is much more important so that they can develop the right strategic framework.

The second stage, which could be at the two-third mark; which is beyond the theoretical framework and is when the execution has actually started. At that stage, I would say, increasingly a shift from generic to a domain specific mentor is much more important because the excellence within the particular areas that are required for succeeding in that specific domain is important. This can only be provided by those in that domain for e.g. if it is a startup focus working on a fintech solution, and say within fintech solution is insurance solution, they need to have engagement with ideally someone who has hybrid knowledge of the tech within the insurance segment. Now that knowledge is usually not available, in fact this is the magic that the founder has to make happen by getting the right nuggets of knowledge of the industry, from an insurance industry guy and combining it with someone who has financial tech understanding.

In short, the domain specific aspect is very important and the third stage when a particular business model has been validated and it is a stage of scaling and growth, I think it is more of again a broad but a highly strategic mentor, who has access and more importantly credibility and reputation in the right circles with respect to both, potential customers and investors, so that the growth strategy is always different from the establishment strategy. In the third stage you move again to the generic mentorship level. However, the mentor or the coach level at that stage is much higher than in the early phase. I think at that stage, equity exchange, and stuff like that is more important, so the person is more of an advisor than a coach.

Sayyed Ahmad Masud:: So, let me recap what we just discussed. You have divided the startup journey into three parts, In the first part, the first thirty-three percent, as you put it, you want a generalist, a business specialist who can help them understand how to approach the problem towards the solution. In the second when they are building the technology it is better to have a technical expert with depth of knowledge to address that part of the challenge. The third part when it comes to growing and scaling, you want a mentor who can help in networking and connecting, and building a good market strategy, probably, so that they can have a better outreach. Am I correct in paraphrasing what you just said?

Adnan Faisal: Yeah, but I want to highlight a couple of things in each stage. So, in the first stage, yes, a general strategist but one who identifies the pillars on which the whole framework is going to be established, so the areas identification is done by them and the startup is sort of pushed in that direction. The second one you said a Technical but I wouldrather use the word domain so maybe technology would come by default, and could be a prerequisite, it is the business industry in which they are working, so the specialists of that particular industry is what I would like to highlight, and in the third stage, more than networking I would say, building the strategic case or business plan for growth is much more important. That then leads to right networking. I mean, Networking with high quality people requires for your substance of your plan to be worked out in a very coherent and high-quality manner. That mentor works with you on that strategic blueprinting. So, it’s not only introduction and connecting with them. It’s that blue printing which needs to be done and then that leading to the networking.

Sayyed Ahmad Masud: This leads to a bit of a paradox. In the beginning I remember, eight, nine years ago, there were no mentors, very few people. So, this mentoring term was very new, it was very hard to find such people. Today it is the absolute opposite. Wherever we go even in smaller towns and cities, we see a lot of mentor, n now when we mention the quality of mentors, probably that is what is lacking because Pakistan still faces a serious crisis of good mentors, right? How will a founder go about? what matrix will they use to analyze who can be a good mentor for them or not?

Adnan Faisal: Yes, I think that is exactly The Elephant in the Room. There is no discussion, awareness about mentor’s quality level so we always talk about, openly talk about the startups. Weather he or she is a good entrepreneur or if that startup is a good one or not. I think up to some extent the investors are also categorized in the formal discussion but mentors are never in the horizon and I think the primary reason for that is because it is wrongly positioned in a philanthropic mannerso it is a favor for someone to give their time. Any Tom, Dick and Harry, popping into an incubation center, or place where startups are working. He or she has to be acknowledged for the time that they give.

I think basically there is a measure for the startups and entrepreneurs as well as the investors, there are financial yardsticks, to measure success and since such measures are not applicable on mentors at all, so in my opinion it is very important that mentorship, or if I may use the word coaching, should be a paid activity. It should be compulsory for every incubator and accelerator to allocate at least 20% of their annual budget to mentors, because now when they will have to spend, they will have to justify as well as the founders will be openly giving feedback with respect to the benefits or not they get from the mentor’s advice and that will basically bring out the, or differentiate, the top league from the wannabes. We have wannapreneurs, the terminology which we so openly throw around, I think there should be some term for wannamentors for focusing on the mentors.

As I said after the founder, mentor is the most important ingredient for a startup’s success. If an incubator or ecosystem or accelerator ecosystem has that mission, then they need to allocate resources in that thing. I believe right now the infrastructure, maybe the utility expense would be more than what they are spending on mentors, and that’s like very wrong headed. So that qualitative approach would come that way, and I will again say that innovation is a game of quality and unless you have quality mentors and, emphasis on quality of mentors, coaches, I think the ecosystem would not move forward. In fact, I sometimes come across this feeling that good quality entrepreneurs are also sometimes taken in the wrong direction by low quality mentors, and you know that sort of wastes a lot of time of high-quality mentors and founders, and you know the founders sometimes simply give up because of the wrong advice.

Sayyed Ahmad Masud:: That’s a very important point that you have made, that if you don’t have a good mentor he may lead you astray and waste your time, resources and energy and probably your startup itself, but the point that you raised before that I think that is relevant that most of the quality mentors, those who have the knowledge, those who have the experience and those probably who would be valuable to founders, do not like coming forward unless it’s for philanthropic reasons because they are not paid at all or they are paid what we call peanuts, but now one suggestion that you have given is that incubators and accelerators should put aside a part of the budget so that they can engage these quality mentors at a reasonable sort of compensation but what about the founders who are not at incubators and accelerators, how should they engage mentors?

Adnan Faisal: So, as I said, you know founders are like the primary strength of a startup ecosystem and what needs to be done? I think founders are at a fault but maybe more than the founders, the ecosystem is at a fault. They have not educated the founders with respect to the value of the coach or advisor and mentor. I will give you an example of what happens in the valley. So, in the valley, a founder would think himself/ herself to be fortunate if a good quality coach would work with them in exchange for equity. In Pakistan it is reverse, the founders have been made so, because you know all so much hype and you know a 100% of nothing is also nothing, they are so possessive about it. It is very important for founders to realize that they need to have at least 5%, in fact 10%, but at least 5% for the advisors and coaches they have. I also believe that you know 2-3% is a decent number for them to have. Finally, the real beneficiaries from a startup ecosystem are primarily the founder, and then the advisor and coaches, who would you know get sweat equity and thirdly, the investor.The circle goes like this.

Unfortunately, now what is happening is that you know the investors are being placed above the mentor’s level and stuff, again because we don’t have understanding of, and appreciation of the qualitative aspect of the whole innovation cycle. So, I think the investors are going to find it the hard way because it is the company builder role which is really required, the money that comes in is a means to an end and the founders need to be equipped, how to spend that money in a smart manner, for the right hiring, for the right strategy, for the right channel development, and for the right access. So, all those sorts of objectives for which money is provided, and what if the CEO is not skilled enough to deliver on those objectives. So that is where the mentors, advisor and coaches come in. In fact, the VCs are sort of paid, their carry Management Fee) by the LPs (Limited Partners) for partly on a grander level, on a bigger level, to play this role in terms of recruitment to access and you know stuff like that.

So, I would say that founders need to be really hungry and aggressive on finding the right mentor. So, I would sort of give you, I believe that our ecosystem maybe be growing fast for our ecosystem but in my opinion, it is evolving extremely slowly because the tech industry is a very fast paced industry, we cannot compare it with other sectors. So, we should have sense of urgency with respect to adoption of these best practices. I would be satisfied when I see that maybe for example the top 5 or 10 mentors, advisor level people have so many startups, requesting them to work with them on equity terms, that they just stop taking any more. I would say then the real progress has been made in terms of ecosystem evolution.

Sayyed Ahmad Masud:: So a number of valid points and I think the most important one was that founders also do not realize the importance of mentors, especially those sitting in incubators and accelerators because there the mentors come either for free or they are paid  not the founders, not by the startups, but the incubator itself, but the founder must realize that getting a good mentor might be the best strategy for them to grow. So, Adnan we are having a very interesting discussion but I would like to know who should be a mentor, if somebody wants to be a mentor what’s the route they should take?

Adnan Faisal:So firstly, you know mentorship should not be confused with the technical experts. Technical experts could sort of help in solving a particular technical challenge but when we talk about a mentor or advisor they should have been in the trenches, they should have been an entrepreneur themselves, so they can have an applied discussion with the entrepreneur. I would say that people who are working corporate jobs expecting them to be mentors is an impossibility because it is a mindset which is, I sometimes use the term the entrepreneurial curse. The entrepreneurial curse is that what the entrepreneur sees people who are doing jobs, they just can’t see that or can’t relate with the possibilities that the entrepreneur sees and that’s why a born entrepreneur is suffocated in a job environment so unless you have that entrepreneurial thing in you I think you can’t be mentor to an entrepreneur you can at best be a technical expert.

Sayyed Ahmad Masud:: Now my last question to you is about Mentor Matrix. I’m not aware of any in Pakistan. What sort of matrix should be put up so that mentors can be gauged and held responsible because obviously if they are going to be paid well, then they need to have a stake in the growth and success of companies so what sort of matrix should be placed, through which people can evaluateperhaps who is a good mentor and I know this is a very broad question because a mentor for one startup might be very bad but might be a very valuable addition to another startup, do you see a way out?

Adnan Faisal: So, you know going back to the three stages that I talked about. It would be like, the first stage could be the idea stage, the second stage could be the early traction or execution phase and the third could be the scaling up or growth phase. The matrix for each of these three stages would be different, and the type of mentors and coaches would also be different. I would say that you know each of these three stages, the very description of these stages could describe the end objectives that the mentor should also be responsible for. So, for example if it’s an idea stage, my style is that at that stage I like to basically make a very watertight case which could become a theoretical strategy for execution and the startup founder needs to be satisfied with it. Those who do the whole presentation or sort of path is pitched to, they need to be satisfied with it. So the end objective of idea phase is you know for the whole theoretical case to be a watertight one and if a mentor could do that, that’s a good enough matrix, so I would say that we can’t have a multi-component matrix to it. 

Sayyed Ahmad Masud::  I know that the startup founders are confused about a lot of things and when we use the word quality, generally they will not know who to choose so there has to be some sort of industry rating or some sort of a system through which mentors can be qualified and you know these are the really relevant ones vs this mentor does not really add quality. How should we go about developing this?

Adnan Faisal: YeahI think the best judge for that would be entrepreneurs, nobody else. So maybe just like Yelp ranks restaurants, Yelps should also rank consulting firms and also coaches. Again, I would say that entrepreneurs need to be more aggressive in terms of contributing to the ecosystem development. So, we have a very visible distinction of maybe the high-quality entrepreneurs, there are at least 20-25 or 30 of them. Giving them a say in them talking about the quality of work that is being done by everyone, that could play a role but it would only become more objective once a pool of these entrepreneurs come together and it’s like you apply data analysis only once you have the data. Right now, there is not even any realization of this concept, I think this is far of from what you are recommending about the matrix.

Sayyed Ahmad Masud:: Yeah I would agree with that because Matrix sort of hold people responsible and accountable and even though the matrix may hide a lot of biases so probably this is early days yet to develop Matrix but as you said the founders need to experience it themselves, they can ask around, they can see and meet companies that have already been mentored by those mentors that they are considering. Probably that might be very useful for them. Any closing thoughts on mentorship in Pakistan, the way forward, how do we develop the ecosystem?

Adnan Faisal: So, for the development of ecosystem I think emphasis on quality is a paramount and I want to give an analogy that what if you have a matric student or say O level student and you know because of lack of understanding of quality and depth you sort of position them as PhD scholars and you hype them and market them as PhD scholars and when you take them to say a postdoc university and ask them to present and deliver a paper and then they fail. So, where does the whole problem lie? The problem lies in the fact that a place providing matriculate education hypes themselves to be producing PhD scholars.

The issue is not their specific role, like O level education, primary and secondary education is extremely important, without these ladders you cannot move to the higher level of educationbut they have their own place. So, basically, again as I said a high school cannot be hyped up to the level of that, it would always remain hype only. It is because of this reason that our ecosystem has not evolved so I would say quality and its appreciation, acknowledgment, awareness, unless we do that in an objective manner, we would not have the right goals to set the direction in which we need to move in.

Sayyed Ahmad Masud:: So, a great discussion I think our listeners learned a lot about the role of mentorship, its importance and why it’s important to be ensuring the quality of the mentors and of compensating them adequately. We also discussed about the accountability of mentors and their responsibility so that it’s not just a relationship where they come and give advice but they also feel ownership as a stakeholder in the success of the startup. Thank you very much Adnan, I think this was a great discussion, a lot of learning, and I’m sure a lot of our listeners are going to listen to this podcast two or three times to get the real meaning out of it. Thank You very much.

Adnan Faisal:  Thank you for giving me the opportunity. Being here was a pleasure.

You can learn more about The Elephant in the Room podcast series by visiting our podcast section.

The Elephant in the Room with Adnan Faisal – Why Everyone is Not a Mentor

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