mentoring is (fun)damental

a young eye-glassed Steven Levitt loudly chiseled the day’s lesson on the above chalkboard. “ today's economic assignment,” he motioned, "we’ll look at whether 9-11 was worth saving, or worth letting happen - in the economic sense.” the classroom hushed at the non-PC audacity of this young man that barely looked older than Harry Potter. to evoke such a solemn event and to view it through the lens of something as frivolous as economics?

that assignment changed how i looked at economics.

Brad Feld believes that everyone should adopt a startup to mentor. in his mentor manifesto, Brad states that

Adopt at least one company every single year. Experience counts.

i decided to give this a try for the last few months, working with three outstanding entrepreneurs.

i’ve had the privilege of mentoring Valence Labs, led by good friend and fellow veteran Aaron Alfson. we worked on the first build together, making mistakes along the way, but quickly failing fast and trying to find lessons learned to a second project. on the second build, we honed it on what Aaron knew better that almost any developer in NYC - and that was e-commerce and the Shopify platform. we made a short-list of products that would be unique in the app marketplace and fit along our target of a 2 month build - and i’m proud to say that his newest product Zero Øut is now in Beta!

the second entrepreneur i’ve worked with is Richard Lau, another friend and fellow veteran developer. Richard and i have worked closely together before, and it was exciting to mentor him on his project. we struggled with the thought process of a software engineer, breaking problems down with a technical approach, use cases, the frustrations of integration with other web services, and deadlines, but managed to submit the Black Mamba App to the Disaster Apps Challenge. i couldn’t be more prouder of the app and what Richard has managed so quickly.

lastly, i’m mentoring a young University of Chicago student named Roger Chen, who is currently building a mobile app called SketchOff, the reverse of Instagram. he’s been incredible to see - his ability to learn is so quick, and his leadership skills at such a young age puts me to shame. he moved to California for the summer with his team to accelerate building, and i’ve been encouraged to see his progress and his app out on the app store. you should download and submit feedback to him via [email protected].

my understanding of mentoring has changed fundamentally, similar to my assignment with Steven Levitt. i used to think that mentoring was where i talk and mentees listen, where i teach and mentees learn, where i give and mentees take. now i realize that the mentor-mentee relationship is a flowing conversation where both parties learn, with one side sometimes wearing the teacher hat, and sometimes the student hat.

throughout my journeys with these three entrepreneurs, i’ve learned an incredible amount. it ranges from thinking like a developer, advising about attorneys, how to define use cases, how to define a marketing strategy, how to work with wireframes, and etcetera and etcetera. i would suffice to say that i have learned more in the relationship than they think i do.

and i’ve learned that mentoring is fun. mentoring is learning. and i agree with Brad - everyone should mentor startups. even if you think you’re too busy to mentor startups because you’re working on your own right now, take one hour out of your week to mentor - you’ll find that the learnings you gain is multiple what you put in.

let me know what your best mentoring experiences are via twitter