As an advisor to startups, I’ve spent a lot of time developing my skills at teaching, guiding, and influencing people. But things aren’t always so rosy for startups – people who have done startups before know that there can be incredible highs but also incredible lows. The tough moments can be extremely challenging to the psyche. But who can guide them through these times?
Lately, I feel like I’ve been playing the role of helping entrepreneurs through tough times, not only with what they do, but what they feel also.
It’s hard being an entrepreneur. Sometimes, you have nobody to talk to. This is why we encourage entrepreneurs to have a co-founder, and to find good advisors. But I’ve found that while many give great advice and are awesome at the “doing” part, and are great problem solvers, they are awful at the “feeling” part.
Therapists have lots of skills – among them are:
1. The ability to listen.
2. The ability to be non-judgemental. What is, is. Don’t place value judgement on what is there in front of you.
3. Be able to practice “tough love.” Don’t be wimpy and only shower someone with good feelings; listen and then guide them to a better place. Don’t be afraid of confrontation – too many people, especially in California, avoid conflict. It’s stupid.
4. To be able to reflect what you heard from them and then guide.
If there is anything I’ve learned in my life, it’s that humans are AWFUL at the above. A good friend said it to me best:
Our society is awesome at creating doctors, lawyers, physicists, scientists. We put them through 12 years of grade school, then another 4 years of college, and then another few years of advanced training. They become AWESOME at what they do. YET we do not train someone to deal with another person positively and for a long time which arguably is just as or more important than your profession.
Those of you who know me know that I am mentor at 500startups, Lemnos Labs, and StartX. I was also mentor to Ycombinator startups when they had a short trial mentor program. And since 2006, I’ve been advisor to 20+ startups, and Venture Advisor at Betaworks. I’ve learned a lot about being a mentor and advisor over the years (see Advising with Influence and Resonance, Advisors for Early Stage Startups Presentation at Yale Entrepreneurship Institute, How Does One Advise So Many Companies at One Time?, The Three Faces of My Schizophrenia, What If I Advise But Don’t Invest?) but think one aspect that has come to the forefront lately is mentor-as-therapist.
So I listen. I hear what they are saying. I don’t be judgemental. I hear the problem or problems.
I can’t get my co-founder to agree!
Why haven’t I got 1 millions users yet? I think my product sucks!
I gotta bridge at a terrible valuation! Depression sets in!
My bank account is at zero! What do I do?
I can’t raise $100M at a billion dollar valuation! The world is so unfair!
Instagram got a billion, why not me?
I’m outta my comfort zone! Panic!
I may suggest solutions, but sometimes I suggest nothing – (in case you didn’t know, suggesting NOTHING is actually an effective way of helping!). Sometimes it can take several conversations. My intuition is fully on – can I actually push a solution now or should I wait? Maybe I can toe one in to see if it will work? I sense their receptiveness or lack thereof. I use a bit of humor. I rag on them to see the absurdity of it all (after all, what’s REALLY important in life – this stupid startup or something else?). If the time is right, I practice tough love. Some get defensive – that’s too bad – some take it in. It can be very taxing on me – isn’t it frustrating when the other party just won’t change or see the light fast enough? I just relax and be very patient because in my experience, the right answer always eventually comes. But ultimately, my hope is that I get them to a more positive place than they are today.
Yep, I’ve got a new job title – just call me “Venture Therapist”….