Mentor Impact's origin story

Mentor Impact has been years in the works.

It started when Emerge Education, then a new edtech accelerator in London, started developing its mentor network. Rather than go to the usual suspects - London’s cadre of known startup mentors - they wanted to develop mentors from all the talented educators and education businesses they knew. It was an innovative idea. They clearly had valuable knowledge, but little startup experience.

They approached me to do the research and design a workshop for their mentors. So I went to the most successful accelerators I worked with – Seedcamp and then launching Techstars London – and found the mentors that had really helped their best startups. That research took about a month.

Early on, it was clear that teaching mentoring wasn’t like teaching bicycle repair. There’s no One True Way – a lot comes down to culture and personal style . Also, the more we met new mentors, the more new techniques became visible. It was a bit of a rabbit hole.

As an educator, the biggest part of helping people become better mentors wasn’t to tell them what to do, it was to help them think through what they already do and improve.

So, I designed the workshop to encourage that. Mentors would hear from the best so far, reflect, and then add to that body of knowledge.

Then came the idea for an ebook.

At the time, at Founder Centric, we were mulling over the pros and cons of books, and had experimented by putting our customer development content out, which my business partner Rob wrote as The Mom Test.

Pro: you get the word out.

Con: you have to keep talking about the same thing.

Pro: you establish a talking point and get people thinking about the right stuff.

Con: you put yourself in a situation where you’re financially motivated to defend what you wrote, rather than update it.

Pro: as the author you’re seen as the expert.

Con: as the author you’re seen as the expert.

Our considerations centered around the idea of intellectual honesty and how knowledge evolves through different people, but books are static.

Rob and I worked on a first draft, mainly from my research notes, but the emphasis was all wrong – it implied a direction that wasn’t what the best mentors had said in the interview.

Of course, iteration is big part of the writing process, so I tried again, this time using a different format - an online guide on guides.co. The idea was that people could jump to the most relevant parts, and I could see that in the stats, so the most useful parts could be updated.

Even in this version, and after a few iterations, it was coming over as too opinionated in the wrong places, and people weren’t taking away the most important lessons. When you’re used to face-to-face education, the hardest thing about books is that you’re not there to correct someone if they get the wrong idea. And I consider the Hippocratic Oath applicable here - I’ve seen too many startup books do awful damage and ruin lives.

The underlying problem was that Mentor Impact wasn’t a priority at Founder Centric, mainly because that was a workshop business and - at the time - accelerators didn’t want to pay to train mentors, just startups. So it moved forward in spurts, as a side project. In terms of content, it never got to that point where it was clearly putting people on the right path, plus there was no real market pull or commercial incentive.

After a few serious knocks, Founder Centric was starting to unravel. (A story for another time.) But I was bullish on new forms of startup education, and saw potential beyond workshops and beyond Europe. I saw that founders succeed when they learn from other founders, in the same way that mentors succeed when they learn from other mentors in the Mentor Impact workshop. The opportunity to do that at a global scale came when I expressed it to my friends and colleagues late last year. Fifteen founders, investors and educators offered to join and help. Of course, I ran with it. That was the beginning of Source Institute.

So, a few weeks ago, I catch up with Andy Young, and old friend from London who’s now EIR at 500 Startups. First thing he says to to me - after 2 years - is “launch that mentoring book.” It turns out that Devin, my other Founder Centric partner, had sent him Mentor Impact when he started at 500. I credit Andy’s intelligence and experience, not my writing, as the reason he’d taken away the right things from the book. But when the new EIR at 500 Startups wants to endorse it, that’s a sign the world might be ready.

So, over a long weekend last month, I pulled out my old research notes and sat down for the third major rewrite.

And I think I’ve cracked it.

Now, I’m getting a lot of great feedback. It feels like this is really striking a nerve and helping people. I’m hearing how this is applied, and what areas of mentorship you’d like to cover.

So the story continues.

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