Home / Specials / Enterprise /  The role mentors play in successful start-ups

Bangalore: Blood tests to detect illnesses is now standard practice, but screening DNA to check for risks of diseases is something new. This would have been just an idea had Saleem Mohammed not met his mentor, A. Balachandaran, at the Technology Business Incubator in Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT) in January 2011.

In the next few years, Mohammed developed a genomic technology process to screen DNA that became the core product, named Lifelong Wellness, for Xcode Life Sciences Pvt. Ltd, the company he founded in 2012.

While many more entrepreneurs continue to look for their ideal mentors, many are faced with challenges in understanding what to expect when they approach such people. Most entrepreneurs look for one of these three: capital, networks and hands-on training, while others continue to be unclear of its implications—both financially and administratively, some experts say.

“Mentoring is filled with a lot of apprehension and misconceptions. What is mentoring? It involves a lot of asking of questions. Is it personal coaching? What should he do? What should I give at the end of the bargain? It is a function of time, place and context," says K. Srikrishna, executive director at National Entrepreneurship Network (NEN), which helps entrepreneurs find mentors.

“I needed someone to believe in me and push me to do things," says Mohammed, director at Xcode Life Sciences. “Lot of mentors in India call themselves serial entrepreneurs, but when you dig a little you realize they only built and sold apps."

Through Balachandran, Mohammed met his second mentor—who later went on to become an angel investor and co-founder of the company—R. Narayanan, who brought in more than 20 years of marketing experience, making this mentors-mentee relationships beneficial.

Though Mohammed, a doctorate in Bioinformatics, has deep knowledge of the subject, he attributes most of his success to his mentors.

“When I started out, I had a quasi-business plan, and I needed a mentor to complement the things I didn’t have. I was fortunate to find them (Balachandran and Narayanan)," he says. “They helped me get my idea into shape and execute it. I got a lot of advice from both of them. They also put me in touch with their networks."

The initial plan that Mohammed went with to his mentors was not commercially viable. It was expensive and cost around 35,000 per person, and screened an unnecessarily large spectrum of diseases. Over the six months’ incubation period in VIT, the plan evolved into a more commercial product, available at 9,999 per person. It was Balachandran’s suggestion.

“What is important is that the entrepreneur takes a leap of faith in the mentor, because to figure out the things that mentors say takes a few more years...to make mistakes and learn from it," says Balachandran. “Also, a mentor is not omnipotent. You might need multiple mentoring too."

Vineet Devaiah, who in April 2011 founded TeliportMe, which developed a technology that allows people to share panoramic images through a mobile application, says the Indian start-up ecosystem needs mentors who genuinely want to help build companies without having hidden agendas. Devaiah uses his own example, where he chose serial entrepreneur Bala S. Manian, who founded several medical technology firms such as ReaMetrix, DigitalOptics and Quantum Dot Corp., as his personal mentor over several others.

“I’ve had plenty of people who wanted to be my mentor, but I decided it wasn’t the best fit because I was either not comfortable with what they were providing as mentorship or what they wanted in return," says Devaiah, a Cornell University graduate who sold his first app, a weather forecasting software, at the age of 15 to Infosys Ltd in 2001 for $1 million. “I think everybody wants something in return, whether it’s equity, or recognition, etc. The best kind of mentors are those who don’t want anything in return and just want to help entrepreneurs."

“There is a paucity of good mentors in India," says Lalit Ahuja, founder of start-up accelerator Kyron Management Services Pvt. Ltd. “A good mentor is someone who’s really by your side whenever you need them, and is almost like the co-promoter or co-CEO of the company, and really understands the opportunities and trends of a start-up so that they can really help the start-up."

Another well-known example of mentoring that worked well is in the case of Phanindra Sama, founder and chief executive of redBus. Sama attributes much of the company’s success to the visionary insight he received from mentor Sanjay Anandram.

Anandram, a former executive at Wipro Ltd, advised Sama and his co-founders to switch their business model and sell bus tickets to the public rather than cater to bus operators, a change without which redBus might have even shut down.

Another ambitious entrepreneur who took that leap of faith is Bala Tripura Sundari, whose mentor gave the first reality check to her big dreams. In 2011, she set out on the start-up journey, fully equipped with knowledge and a business plan, to build a finishing school that could provide skills training to students in rural India and decided to focus on the entire country rather than validate it in geography that she was familiar with—Andhra Pradesh.

“There was a dearth for skilled labour in Andhra Pradesh and she had experience there. I told her to go local and follow the hub and spoke business model. She immediately understood what I was saying and followed," says Radhika Meenakshi Shankar, who mentored Sundari during the launch of Involute Institute of Technical Training, Hyderabad, in 2011.

“A chord has to be struck between the mentor and the mentee. I felt this with Radhika," says Sundari.

Shankar and Sundari worked as a team to get the government subsidies to help revenue flow, and when it came in, Shankar realized how involved she was in this mentor-mentee relationship. “I try to stand back every time, but at some point it draws you in. I remember jumping in joy when Sundari told me that the subsidies came through. I am a very emotional person," says Shankar.

Amid all this optimism, there is also a widespread concern—among both entrepreneurs and mentors—about the line between philanthropic mentoring and equity-based mentoring, but experts say that entrepreneurs should beware of abusing the relationship.

“If the first thing you hear is ‘We will take x per cent in your company’, it is very scary to be an entrepreneur without any knowledge of what that deal will mean in the future," says Mohammed.

“Mentors want to be part of the progress and success," says Srikrishna of NEN. “Entrepreneurs should realize that if they work as a team, they have to keep their end of the bargain."

Shankar, who worked closely with many start-ups and taught entrepreneurial subjects in colleges over the decade, now runs a company that does just that—help entrepreneurs. The company, Wise Owl Consultancy Services Pvt. Ltd, is an entrepreneur management firm that helps small start-ups with training, mentoring and consulting.

Whether it is equity-based or free mentoring, all mentors can do is guide entrepreneurs on the right track. “We are like sounding boards and we will only ask a lot of questions," says Srikrishna. “All the work has to be done by you at the end of the day."

Mihir Dalal contributed to this story.

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