To thrive, startups need great mentors; here's how to find them

Skills must be specific to entrepreneurs
Posted at 8:00 AM, Oct 16, 2017
and last updated 2017-10-16 09:21:11-04

CINCINNATI -- Partnering with a top mentor can be the difference between a startup that lands funding and one that never gets beyond the idea stage. 

Entrepreneurs need to address a dozen high-priority goals, ranging from go-to-market strategies to best practices around equity, funding and launch campaigns, at any given time. Access to a mentor who connects with their ideas and visions can provide much-needed answers to a startup team's most difficult questions. 

Here's how to get advice on the best resources for finding the right coach or mentor for your startup idea and learn best, next steps for your startup idea no matter your product or service category.

HCDC has mentoring model to fit any startup

"I like to provide coaching and mentoring from a vantage point that's outside friendly fire," said Patrick Longo, vice president and director of the business center at HCDC, the Economic Development Office for Hamilton County. "Let's get you outside of your comfort zone. Let's set goals with someone you haven't met before." 

According to Longo, the Greater Cincinnati startup ecosystem will grow and strengthen as investment capital continues to build. In addition to funding, Longo believes more mentors need to promote leadership and best practices among the increasingly diverse ecosystem of startups throughout Southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky.

Longo heads HCDC's business incubator adjacent to Xavier University and provides four models of mentorship to startups, including the seven-week I-Corps@Ohio program and Growth Wheel, a business model generation tool led by HCDC business coach Karla Boldery. 

After some 20 years in a leadership position at HCDC, Longo understands that entrepreneurs want to focus on funding but said that's just one piece of building a successful startup. 

"Think about what we can share with you about your marketplace," Longo said, speaking at HCDC's new co-working space in Norwood. "After 18 years of experience working alongside the Queen City Angels, I can help prescreen a startup team and determine if they have a very good chance at raising capital or if they're not ready. I can also prepare them for revenue growth." 

At Covington's UpTech accelerator, a bottom-up approach  

Jonathan "JB" Woodruff, commercialization director at Kentucky Innovation Network and program director at UpTech, the Covington-based startup accelerator, promotes a more bottom-up approach. He provides plenty of networking opportunities between startups and mentors but wants entrepreneurs to make connections and decide who syncs with their companies. 

"We don't do the pairing," Woodruff said, speaking at the UpTech accelerator space off Pike Street. "We're about creating opportunities and getting people engaged. … One of the challenges facing entrepreneurs is getting people to rally around you -- getting people to support you and believe in what you're doing. That's true on the mentor side as well. You want people to connect with you. I have a canned message I share with our startups. I believe mentorship should be as organic as relationships in real life."

OCEAN accelerator emphasizes inner qualities

The best practices Paul Heagen shares with entrepreneurs focus more on internal qualities such as leadership and stamina.

Heagen -- founder and president of Defining Moments, a Cincinnati-based executive coaching practice -- believes entrepreneurs who possesses a solid, personal foundation have a greater chance at funding and market successes. He's also a go-to mentor at OCEAN, a faith-based accelerator in Over-the-Rhine, and Unpolished, OCEAN's education initiative for entrepreneurs.

"We are a faith-based business accelerator, so we are very much focused on the character of the founder," Heagen said. "Think about this from an investor standpoint. Let's assume that the idea is good. Let's assume that there is a market. All those things can be in place, but the investor does not want to run the business. They need people who have stamina and character to run a business.

"They need people who know how to recruit and manage a team. … When we say faith-based, it's about being very purposeful in the business. That's kind of what you need in the dark days." 

Heagen understands that finding a mentor can be a challenge. He advises emerging startup founders to flip the challenge and turn gaining access to top accelerators and valuable entrepreneurial networks into a team-building exercise.

"If you can't get into the business accelerator you want, then you ought to ask yourself the question, ‘What do I need to do to do to accomplish that?' " he said, speaking at OCEAN's new Over-the-Rhine offices. "Maybe there's a gap there you need to address.

"There are some good people who don't get into incubators, but this community is not lacking right now for business accelerators and resources. … You have to do the hard work and earn your way into some of these communities that can help you."

Supportive network is the value proposition at Aviatra Accelerators  

Establishing a supportive network is key, said Carlin Stamm, a corporate veteran with manufacturing facility management, marketing and finance experience. He founded the leadership consultancy Foster Sales & Customer Relationship Strategies LLC and serves as a mentor at Aviatra Accelerators (formerly Bad Girl Ventures), a business support network for women entrepreneurs.

"Women don't have some of the same networks in place that men do," Stamm said. "They have more difficulty getting funding. I meet a lot of women who have business ideas and don't know how to get started. I help them develop their unique selling propositions, establish the advantages they provide their customers as well as the market they should target."

His corporate experience in direct sales, finance and supply chain management makes him a match for Aviatra entrepreneurs, who emphasize lifestyle businesses more than tech startups. He frequently works with them on "tech enablement" strategies to distinguish their business, provide greater customer value and streamline operations.  

"I like to work with companies that are going to use technology to change the way people buy a particular product," Stamm said. "These include a company that uses an app to guide drivers to available parking spaces and an online service for booking babysitters."

The right stuff for mentors, as explained by The Hamilton Mill

Rahul Bawa said family and friends can offer entrepreneurs advice, but a mentor with the "right stuff" can be a life-changer. Bawa is chief executive officer at eMerge Health Solutions, a health IT company, and chairman of the board of The Hamilton Mill, a Hamilton-based incubator focused on advanced manufacturing, clean technology and software.

Rahul Bawa, CEO of eMerge Health Solutions and chairman of incubator The Hamilton Mill, said good mentors must truly understand startups. (Photo provided)

"A successful mentor should have been there and done it," Bawa said. "What I mean is that a startup mentor needs to have started a business. They need to be genuinely interested in you and your business. They can't always be nice. They need to deliver tough love. They need to spend time without asking for money. 

"Most of all, a valuable mentor understands that she or he is not the boss of the entrepreneur. You can give advice, but that doesn't mean the entrepreneur has to follow your advice." 

Woodruff also believes in the importance of the unique experiences successful mentors bring to would-be entrepreneurs. He knows from his own experiences as a consultant that there are key career and life experiences that make some mentors more valuable to startups and others best suited for leadership training at major corporations. 

"Experience is an aspect that's very important in a mentor," Woodruff said, speaking at UpTech's garage-turned-boardroom. "What did you do in this experience? How did you react? That's very important to entrepreneurs. Typically, you're looking for a seasoned individual who's been there and done it." 

Top tips from leading mentors

Here are best practices from some of Greater Cincinnati's leading startup mentors.

"Respect the time and respect the relationship with your mentor. Send them emails and little blurbs so they can gauge you and prepare for you. When they give you an assignment, go ahead and do it. These assignments are for you, not the mentor."  - Patrick Longo, vice president and director of the business center at HCDC

"UpTech is a data-driven accelerator. Every founder who comes through here better be measuring everything they do. They need to learn from their data and improve from it. I also push that perspective on our accelerator mentors." - Jonathan "JB" Woodruff, commercialization director at Kentucky Innovation Network and program director at UpTech

"I am not going to be so glib to say that if you build it they will come, but I think an entrepreneur can focus on funding and end up missing the fundamentals of the business. If you do everything right, the funding will come a lot more easily." - Paul Heagen, founder of executive coaching practice Defining Moments and coach at OCEAN, a faith-based startup accelerator, and its education initiative, Unpolished

"After providing coaching towards a specific issue like team building or marketing, a mentor often forms a relationship and trust with the entrepreneur. My startups see me as longer-term, and there are people I have been working with five, six and seven years. We are close. We meet periodically. I know their families because in small business, personal lives are intertwined with the business." -Carlin Stamm, corporate veteran and founder of leadership consultancy Foster Sales & Customer Relationship Strategies LLC and mentor at Aviatra Accelerators 

"I always advise a startup to focus on market validation. This includes their product and whether it is something that is really needed. Will someone actually pay for the product? Talk to people in your target market that you don't know -- do not ask friends and family. Friends and family will always say it's a great idea, even if they know nothing about the product or the market." - Rahul Bawa, chief executive officer at eMerge Health Solutions and chairman of the board at incubator The Hamilton Mill

Network with city's top mentors

Here are tips for networking with some of Greater Cincinnati's leading startup mentors.

Morning Mentoring

Morning Mentoring is an entrepreneurial coaching program that provides expert feedback to startup co-founders from experienced mentors. Queen City Angels and HCDC co-facilitate the popular program.

Startup Grind Cincinnati

Startup Grind is a monthly meetup featuring a presentation by a successful entrepreneur along with a networking opportunity for startup founders.

Unpolished Cincinnati

Unpolished, OCEAN's education initiative for entrepreneurs, offers a variety of programs for aspiring startup founders to meet experienced business owners and coaches. OCEAN plans to launch Unpolished in multiple cities across the U.S.


Cintrifuse, Cincinnati's private-public support network for tech-based startups, continues to be the Over-the-Rhine-based hub and recommended starting point for all Greater Cincinnati entrepreneurs with an interest in establishing relationships with corporations.

Founder Institute Cincinnati

The Cincinnati chapter of Founder Institute, a global entrepreneur support network, provides networking opportunities as well as a step-by-step coaching program for startup founders.

Aviatra Accelerators

Aviatra Accelerators, formerly Bad Girl Ventures, is a business support network with a focus on women entrepreneurs.