Beyond the Pitch

Bridging the Talent Gap: How Mentors Can Help

For a startup, bringing on the right talent at the right time is a perpetual balancing act. The challenging reality is that startups almost always hire behind demand.

Initially, it’s a matter of resources—time and money. It also takes some amount of prototype development and hands-on experience with potential customers to understand what skills are missing and required.

“Before founders do a talent hunt,” said Dan Finkelman, First Connect mentor and Board of Directors Chair at MentorcliQ, “they need to understand the skills they need to be successful. What experiences and demonstrable capabilities does the company need to be at the top of the list?”

In the early days, a startup’s culture is still evolving. Entrepreneurs need to figure out what they want their company culture to be before they can identify team members who will fit in.

Rev1’s First Connect network of mentors can help fill talent gaps.

There is a sort of Maslow hierarchy of talent in startups,” said Finkelman, “The entrepreneurs bring the vision, the idea, and the drive; they are steeped in the industry. “

Very shortly, though, founders must identify the critical one or two things that the startup must accomplish to move to the next phase and the critical skills to get those things done.

“At some point, you have to staff up to get anywhere,” Finkelman said.

Entrepreneurs face a balancing act, figure out what they need to learn themselves and what they need to contract or hire and when.

“That’s where the board capacity and mentoring relationships come in,” said Finkelman.

“Entrepreneurs can ask people who have done these things before about the kinds of things they should be thinking about and pay attention to. The best people to ask for advice are people who have done what they are trying to accomplish before, especially mentors who have been entrepreneurs themselves,” he said.

In this give and take, it’s important for both sides to understand their roles.

“The mentor cannot own the problem,” he said. “The entrepreneur has to want the advice and then structure the ask. The entrepreneur has to know when they need help and when they don’t. It’s important to have that straight.”

Tips to build a talent acquisition process that leads to great hires:

The three founders of MentorcliQ, a Columbus-based startup that supports enterprise-wide strategic mentoring programs, brought diversified functional experience in product, operations, and sales.

“We started off in a good place,” said Phil George, co-founder and CEO, said. “The key pieces of our business were covered by our founders. From there we decided that we would hire people that we knew really well, professionally and personally.”

MentorcliQ hires for talent, rather than for position.

“We’ve had multiple people on our team who started in one particular role, and now have moved to one or two other positions—sometimes based on needs of the business, sometimes based on where they could add the most value to the team right now,” George said.

“In the beginning, every single hiring decision is a critical, crucial decision,” Finkelman said. “Understanding where you need to hire and why you are hiring, and then engage mentors and advice to help find that talent.”

A big part of that process is the ongoing dialogue between entrepreneurs and mentors.  These five questions lead to discussions that get results:

  • Is the talent gap one you can satisfy with mentoring, through contractors, or is it a skill you need now and for the foreseeable future?
  • If the startup had the ability to hire one more person within six months, who would that be and what would you have them do?
  • How will adding this talent contribute to our #1 or #2 goal right now?
  • How will hiring this person affect the startup’s cash position? This month, next quarter, in a year?

And the toughest:

  • Have we made a wrong hire? A startup doesn’t have the time, money, or energy to waste on a hiring mistake. The full cost of carrying someone that isn’t working out is huge. When you have the feeling it isn’t right, take action; don’t delay.

“Learn from those mistakes,” Finkleman said.

Board members and mentors are great are great for guiding an entrepreneur through the kinds of things he or she should be thinking about and pay attention to.

Talent acquisition is one of those really big things startups have to get right.

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