Some of the brightest and most accomplished entrepreneurs will tell you a mentor played a valuable role during some pivotal moment in their company’s rocky road to success.
Serial entrepreneur Josh Dorfman has spent two years studying how startup ecosystems in small to medium sized cities like Boulder, Nashville and Raleigh-Durham produce many more successful startups than others. The director of Venture Asheville, who previously started “green economy” e-commerce businesses, believes that in addition to attracting talent, organizing capital and building connectivity, a startup ecosystem needs world-class mentorship.
Dorfman also manages Asheville Angels, a new investor group of about 50 members that launched in fall 2014 and has funded six startups in the Carolinas, including Plum Print based in Asheville, RivalHealth in Raleigh, and Baebies in Durham.
After exploring numerous mentor models, Venture Asheville adopted the Venture Mentoring Service program designed by MIT, which is uniquely designed around team mentoring. VMS is now in operation in over 50 startup hubs around the world, including at NEXT in Greenville, S.C. and CED in Raleigh-Durham.
But what’s different about Venture Asheville Elevate is its hybrid approach to mentoring. Plotting a course for startup founders to not only effectively scale their ventures but also become more effective managers, CEOs and leaders, Elevate combines the MIT model with Vistage International, a peer-to-peer advising program.
At its core, Elevate is designed to support and strengthen Asheville’s high-growth entrepreneurs in learning how to perfect their products and services; identify and enter new markets; build business organizations; secure funding; and become effective leaders and CEOs.
“Programs like Elevate help brand Asheville as a dynamic startup hub. One where startup founders know they can access the support, capital and other resources necessary to succeed and where the broader community is committed to their success,” says Dorfman.
Venture Asheville’s mentorship program integrates five strategic components that set the stage for a new, more effective mentoring model:
Rethinking traditional one-on-one mentoring, each founder is assigned two to three mentors—matched by their relevant expertise to each startups’ needs—who can provide diverse perspectives and expert opinions. This also creates a rich learning environment for mentors to learn from each other, keeping them more engaged. The founders determine the agenda for monthly 90-minute meetings and are held responsible for acting on the agreed action items each month.
The Right Expertise at the Right Time
Since early stage ventures face different challenges along their journeys, the needs for areas of expertise change over time. Venture Asheville’s program adapts to that reality, allowing both mentors and founders the option to shift to another team or mentor that provides the right specialized expertise for the most critical challenges at hand.
In addition to their mentor teams, startup founders also gain access to the program’s specialist mentors who possess deep expertise in a variety of functions, from HR and finance to legal, patents and branding. These specialists set open office hours each month. Thus, through team mentors and specialists, Elevate’s goal is to enable entrepreneurs to access the exact expertise they need at precisely the moment they need it.
Qualify Your Mentors
Many of Venture Asheville’s mentors, who range from successful entrepreneurs to C-level executives, have worked at some of the largest and best known corporations in the world, including Apple, Microsoft, Dell and Oracle. They also have significant startup experience. But that was only the first requirement.
Before a potential mentor actually gets to offer anyone advice, interested candidates are vetted through career background research, in-depth face-to-face interviews and a full-day mentor orientation course. Mentors must sign confidentiality agreements and agree to a code of ethics stating they can’t be matched with any startups where a conflict of interest may exist. These terms establish a safe haven for founders to openly discuss the things that keep them up at night and receive unbiased, conflict-free advice.
Mentors include Eric Jackson, CEO of DemocracyApps, Ron Hoffman, a global vice president at SAP, Evelyn Sheahan, a Microsoft director of business strategy, Trevor Lohrbeer, who sold his company Lab Escape to Teikametrics last year, and Missy Sherburne, chief partnerships officer at DonorsChoose.org.
Develop Future CEOs
Unique to startups, Elevate teaches founders how to better manage their business as it scales, a key metric of the ventures’ probability of success. It cultivates leadership and business management skills in a peer-to-peer advising format through Vistage International, which also provides online access to a global network of 20,000 participating CEOs.
Monthly full-day sessions provide a forum for founders to discuss critical operational issues and how best to resolve them, to learn from world-class guest speakers and improve their ability to efficiently manage their staff and operations. The Vistage component is led by Bill Tate, a highly trained and successful CEO who has led companies ranging in size from $20 million to more than $2 billion.
Venture Asheville Elevate launched last month with nine startups and 15 mentors. It plans to add a new cohort of 10 startups in the summer and ramp up to 50 startups and 75 mentors within two years.
Asheville startups selected for Elevate include:
LiveWire Solution—Offers end-to-end lead generation and client retention platform for real estate brokerages and agents.
BrewStream—Enables craft breweries to effectively run the business side of their business via its cloud-based management system.
Shiny Creek—Builds enterprise-class mobile and web applications.
LoLo—Rewards consumers for spending locally through a rewards program tied to your own credit card.
Spoken Word—Creates revenue streams for authors by publishing and distributing audio books.
Cab Hound—Transforms how taxi companies operate in the age of Uber.
UgoTour—Enhances the experience of tourism destinations via mobile-enabled audio tours.
Sweet Blossom Gifts—Sells personalized artisan jewelry on its e-commerce platform.
Efficiency Lab—Software developer for the electric power industry.
Pictured above: Asheville entrepreneurs networking at 1 Million Cups—Asheville, another newly-launched program in the mountain town.