4 Tips To Cultivate Winning Mentor Relationships
All Larry Larson, CEO of Larson Strategic Analytics and Rev1 mentor, ever wanted to do from the time he was a child was fly for the Air Force. That didn’t happen, but a lot of other interesting things did.
Larson majored in electrical engineering and graduated from Ohio State on a Navy ROTC scholarship. He was a Navy test pilot, earned the rank of Captain, and served as the chief of staff for the Navy International Programs Office.
After retiring from the Navy, Larson held several private sector executive positions in strategic development, new products, and government relations for defense contractors in Washington, D.C., and Boston. He retired again and returned to Columbus to begin his third career as a specialized business consultant.
“I was always looking for ways to apply new technology,” Larson said. “When I came back to Columbus, one of the first places that caught my eye was Rev1. I started going to their events and other events around town where startups come, networking more than anything else. I’m not a serial entrepreneur, but what I do bring is Department of Defense and federal connections and the understanding of how to get things done.”
Advice in applications and government relations helps AwareAbility Prioritize Market Opportunities
Rev1 encouraged a connection between Larson and Vasil Hlinka, CEO of AwareAbility Technologies; they’ve been working together since last fall.
Hlinka has a long history of applying varied technologies to solve real-world problems. He was interested in starting a company and, with Rev1 facilitating, he joined AwareAbility Technologies, an early stage startup that was in need of a pivot to identify better market problems that AwareAbility could solve.
The Internet of Things (IoT)
A recent report from the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that the IoT could have a $4 trillion to $11 trillion impact in economic value by 2025. The report also suggests that companies are likely to focus more on simple applications (tracking or sending status alerts) than predictive ones.
McKinsey recommends focusing on outcomes—safety, financial returns, and convenience more than the technological potential of the technology.
AwareAbility is in the business of providing new and valuable insights via analytics on data from the physical world through the use of Internet of Things (IoT) technology. The company is leveraging leading-edge software and hardware technologies, some of which are licensed from The Ohio State University.
“If you are going to start a tech company, Rev1 has all the ingredients. Access to capital, access to technology, access to friendly companies that are looking to help startups, and then access to OSU research resources. They have all the elements one would need, plus the facility,” Hlinka said.
“When Vasil and I first met last fall,” Larson said, “he asked me to be another set of eyes on the proposal he was writing. Since then, we’re engaging more and more. Now our relationship is more like a partnership. I like Vasil’s vision for the company. We brainstorm. We have desks side by side in AwareAbility’s space at Rev1.”
4 Tips to Get the Gold from Mentor/Entrepreneur Relationships
Larson and Hlinka are in sync about how to help AwareAbility prioritize applications with the best opportunity for payback and value add in the huge, largely undefined market. They listen to each other and iterate. They don’t duplicate effort. They leverage their relationship.
Here’s what they advise:
1. Be straightforward about expectations and objectives.
LL: For a mentor, being involved on the ground floor is exciting. It’s not about expecting any reward other than the satisfaction of giving back. It’s an honor to work with some of these brilliant people. They have ideas I couldn’t think of, but I do know a little about turning technology into a product they could sell. Mentoring or being an expert through Rev1 is a great way to do that. They are the perfect avenue for investors including the State to money put into startups. Whatever a tech startup needs—product or market validation, capital, business services or web design—Rev1 has connections with someone who can help a young company do things right.
VH: We had a couple of conversations to get a feel for each other. It was quickly apparent that Larry and I could work together. We talked about the business itself. He thought it had legs, and he thought we could chase some public-sector work. We also talked about where there were opportunities for him and if those were things he was interested in doing. Larry was willing to do much more than just sit in meetings. He was eager to roll up his sleeves and help get things done.
2. Allow the relationship to develop over time.
LL: You’ve got to play it by ear and both wear multiple hats. Flexibility is important. A mentor has certain skills and abilities. The entrepreneur has to be flexible, opening up to a place those can be used.
VH: Part of the mentor relationship depends on where the company is. When it is an early stage as we are, it’s easier to have new people lend a hand. Typically, there are more open roles that need to be filled and there is plenty of extra work to be done. We have a little more flexibility; there is more opportunity for a mentor to help. After you talk with a mentor, you can find out where opportunities to help are and would they be willing to do that work.
3. Connect with a mentor with deep expertise and connections in industries and markets that are strategic to the startup.
VH: “While we are getting a deeper understanding of our business case and strategy, it makes sense to focus on the federal space. We are looking for federal work to help fund product development. The nice thing with some of the federal programs is the non-dilutive funding from SBIR*, but the approach and selling in that sector is different from the private sector. It’s important to understand these differences. Larry has been around the block; he knows what it takes. It is one less thing to learn.
LL: Federal acquisition is governed by the acquisition regs, but there’s more to it. I know how Washington works and where to go. I’m leading that aspect of marketing and business development, but I’m not limiting myself to that.
4. Both mentor and entrepreneur must be consistently willing to listen and potentially change their minds or even pivot, based on what they learn.
LL: Most entrepreneurs encourage discussion and debate but I’ve seen a few who are very confident and only want suggestions that validate their views. That’s not the approach I recommend but it doesn’t bother me. Entrepreneurs who know exactly where they’re headed and how to get there probably don’t need a mentor. It’s not the best use of anyone’s time.
VH: When you are an entrepreneur, you have 1001 people telling you what to do. You need to stay the course and have a vision, but you have to balance that. If you can work with the right person in a mentoring capacity, you will be able to get the advice you need from a source you can listen to and trust. This advice can be of particular help when the inevitable course corrections are needed.
*The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program is a U.S. government program, coordinated by the Small Business Administration, intended to help certain small businesses conduct research and development. Funding takes the form of contracts or grants.