Startup mentoring versus apprenticeship

The interaction between startups and startup mentors has a fundamental difference from ‘apprenticeship’, something which has major implications for the future of innovation.

In apprenticeship, the apprentice is mentored and managed by the master.

In startups, the apprentice, not the mentor, is the both manager and the master.

In apprenticeships, there is a business model that the master is bound to protect and preserve, and the relationship is based upon the master teaching and the apprentice learning and the apprentice doing exactly what they are told, ‘or else’.

In innovative startups, there is a business model to be discovered and the relationship is based upon sharing, not command or control.

What could go wrong with this picture?

Well, for a start, the mentor could be an investor, or prospective investor, like an Angel or a VC.

That puts a great deal of power back in their hands.

But it’s rare for the investor-founder relationship to even remotely resemble the one between master and apprentice.

The novice startup founder chooses the direction and destination of the ship and steers it themselves by holding the tiller, while the seasoned mentor shows them how to read ocean charts and navigate by the stars whilst listening to the founder’s dreams about what they want to do when they arrive at the promised land.

The perceptive mentor will be learning how to think like a novice, struggling to learn how to reacquire the unfettered beginners mind that they lost as they gained the experiences that they are sharing.

In this way, the adventure-seeking founder has as much to offer the mentor as the mentor has to teach the founder.

What the mentor is learning is how to be a valuable co-explorer, ultimately discarding their ‘best practice instincts’ of advising subordinates and novices to ‘stick to the tried and tested’ and instead treating their experience of best practice as a body of knowledge which needs to be shared with the founder as a resource to be drawn upon, challenged, or consciously disregarded, rather than be followed with blind obedience.

The accomplished startup mentor should eventually become just as adept at coping with the unexpected consequences of traversing uncharted water as the startup founder, not by ‘battening down the hatches’ as a master in a traditional business would instruct their apprentice to do in the face of an approaching operational storm, but by ‘imagining a world of new possibilities’ that the founder opens up before them, in the course of braving the unknown in a way that the mentor would, in a more traditional role, have felt was foolishly imprudent, or unnecessarily reckless, wasteful or pointless.

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Although all teachers recognise the fact that they are learning as they teach, the difference in the ‘power relationship’ of founder and mentor has its own unique dynamic.

The founder is not like a tot whose power needs to be curtailed in order to prevent them doing themselves harm, or a student who can ultimately be threatened with expulsion if they disrupt the class enough.

The founder brings enthusiasm and determination, they bring imagination and creativity, but they also bring a fierce sense of independence and autonomy which the mentor is usually powerless to override.

It is precisely this interaction between the force for innovation which is embodied in the startup founder’s uninhibited determination to succeed in the face of inexperience, combined with the mentors capacity to impart experience without the otherwise inevitable capacity (and often imperative) to inhibit innovation, that finally offers us a credible way to solve the innovator’s dilemma.

Experience-free startups may dream up the most radical innovations, but their inexperience will hold all but a few of them back from bringing them successfully to market.

Experience-rich established businesses may employ brilliant inventors who are sometimes even better at dreaming up innovations, but the threat that they pose to the existing business will usually hold them back.

So neither of these one-sided models work reliably.

Only systematically combining experience with the power to challenge it really produces disruptive innovation.

And this is something that the ‘elective’ aspect of mentoring offers innovative startups.

Whilst no-one is suggesting that current apprenticeship schemes should be abandoned in recognition of these realities, the fact that there is a groundswell of new-found appreciation and support for apprenticeship, combined with the fact that it represents a resurgence of a time-honoured tradition, means that it is probably a good idea to see if these recently introduced apprenticeship schemes would benefit from some of the new insights that we are gaining from the experiences of startup mentors.

What mentors gain, in this peer-based, rather than authoritative role, is the opportunity to keep up to date with the latest thinking, stimulate the most enthusiastic, if somewhat capricious and volatile research resource they have ever worked with and follow exploratory trajectories no conventional business would ever have deemed worth considering and usually for good reasons.

They will be exposed to investment opportunities that will often seem to have come from nothing but impetuous audacity and obstinate contrarianism, they will become expert in things which are sometimes at frontiers of knowledge and that overturn all received wisdom and at other times they will seem to be threatening to break the world record for the number of (for old hands, easily foreseeable) blind alleys and cul-de-sacs encountered in a single marathon problem-solving brainstorming session.

All these things are the rewards and penalties that they can reasonably expect when they hand their mighty apprentice-master’s cudgel to the startup founder and in return they accept that humble symbol of the mentor’s metier: the wishbone.