Business strategy, forward momentum, and coachability predict successful relationships with advisors
Dedicated and talented mentors who donate their expertise to clean technology startups are central to the success of the Cleantech Open Northeast Accelerator.
Kathryn Elmes, Director of Cleantech Open Northeast, presents to a group of mentors and entrepreneurs about the accepted teams and mentoring opportunities. Photo by Gina Bellato.
So the pressure was on for each startup to find the right collaborators at CTONE’s mentor mixer on May 24th, as participating startups pitched their ideas to professional mentors representing fields from finance to patent law.
“If you utilize our mentors, you’re going to get a tremendous amount out of this program,” said Tim Hoffman, CTONE Metro Director.
"I think we will all agree that we are here to change an inefficient world," Hoffman continued. "I think we're also here because we see the massive problems in society these days as business opportunities. Cleantech Open is here to help companies seize that opportunity."
Following Hoffman’s opening address, nine companies from CTONE’s 2017 cohort pitched their products to the room. Then the mentors were given their first chance of the year to give direct feedback. A speed meeting event was announced featuring five-minute interviews between each mentor and entrepreneur.
One group of mentors seated near the corner of the room felt no need to stick to protocol. Forming an ad hoc group of three, they subjected each entrepreneur brave enough to face all of them at once to animated questioning.
"We're doing a group grilling - I mean, interviewing!" explained Murray Froiken, a CTONE mentor and former investment banker.
Young Lee, the founder of AdvanceH2O and the recipient of this unrelenting attention, handled their questions well. After several minutes of examination there was a brief miscommunication. Young had the presence of mind to pause and ask for clarification.
"What is it that you're needing to know?" Young asked. "I want to help you understand."
Other entrepreneurs were not initially so poised. However, as the evening progressed, innovators found out that listening was just as important as pitching ideas. Trying to aggressively sell a mentor on a product could not compete with the simple act of listening and responding to any concerns while outlining a solid business strategy.
In fact, although entrepreneurs overwhelmingly said that they were looking for mentors with knowledge of a particular business skill or industry, mentors quickly revealed that they were not looking for a startup in a particular field. Instead, they were seeking a combination of coachability and forward momentum.
So what would have prepared an entrepreneur for Froiken’s grilling? According to CTONE mentors, they wanted to know how innovations would become scalable products. Many startup leaders were clearly considering their creations from this point of view for the first time. The ones who arrived with a basic sense of business plan and marketing approach were ahead of the game.
Judith Miara, CTONE Mentor and Georgia Biofuels CFO, described her own interviews as having four stages. First she asked entrepreneurs to describe their technology. Then she asked them what problem they were solving. Next came an inquiry about the advantage they brought to the market. Finally, she concentrated on whether the company had clear objectives for the immediate future.
Or as Miara put it, “Where do we take it? What’s the next stage? How do we develop it?”
Miara’s urgent push to move her projects into their next stages illustrated the importance to CTONE mentors of generating clear value for startups. The drive to realize immediate benefits has led many CTONE participants to national success. The 2015 Cleantech Open national winner came from the northeast division, while Hoffman and Deputy Director Robert Parker have both earned mentor of the year titles. Then there are the stories of multiple CTONE mentors who have gone on to have a lasting role in the companies with which they have worked.
As the mentor mixer proves each year, success can be as simple as finding the right match.
Mentor Mixer FAQ:
- Can you describe your product and its functionality?
- How does your team operate and what talent do you have available?
- How do you differentiate yourself from other companies in the space?
- Do you have any patents?
- What is your production and distribution strategy?
- What is your budget?
- What are your revenue streams?
- Do you anticipate a specific pricing model?
- Who will be most receptive to the change you are bringing to the market?
- Have you talked with potential customers and are any of them interested in purchasing?
By Elise Baker on in Northeast