There is a popular saying: A ship without a rudder drifts at the mercy of the winds. Young entrepreneurs often find themselves going adrift while on the journey to create a successful start-up. A mentor can act as a rudder for them to give a proper direction to their efforts.
It is no secret that building a company from scratch is an uphill task. Budding entrepreneurs spend sleepless nights filled with anxiety and experience adrenaline rush when they have ideas that can take them nearer to their goals. But if there is a shortfall of insights, their vision can easily muddle up, which may not only sidetrack them from their goal but also risk utter failure.
The initial years of a start-up are extremely crucial. It is more so in the electronics industry, where competition is immense, but opportunities are equally high. In such an industry, start-ups often find themselves adrift without any guidance like a child lost in the supermarket. This is when a mentor could help.
But what exactly does a mentor do? Why do you need a mentor and, most importantly, how do you identify a mentor who could be good for you? If these are some of the questions coming up in your mind, we have got you covered.
A mentor is someone who guides an individual, also known as the mentee, with insights that help the mentee cruise through difficult choices and develop skills necessary for his/her professional as well as personal growth.
“The best mentors teach their mentees insights that are drawn from their own experiences and provide once-in-a-lifetime education, which is beyond any formal academic education system that we may have,” explains N. Kishor Narang, Founder, Narnix Technolabs.
A mentor may help with exploring careers, setting goals, expanding one’s network, and identifying other sources. But how is it different from coaching?
Coaching takes a more performance based approach to improve one’s on-the-job performance. Mentorship is more development driven. It looks not only at the current job, but beyond that, taking a more holistic approach towards career development and as a person.
“It is important to remember that we are individuals before we are professionals. Our performance in our professional life is a reflection of our personal traits and shows the kind of person that we have evolved into in the last couple of decades,” says Narang.
“Mentoring is to support and encourage people to manage their own learning in an order that may maximise their potential to become the person that they want to be,” he adds.
Narang believes a good mentor-mentee relationship can help transform lives. Every business, whether big or small, has a responsibility to the society it is functioning in, and a good mentor helps his mentee understand the need of advocating for the well-being of the society.
“The power of mentoring is transformative for individuals and communities. Mentoring is a powerful tool of awareness and understanding diversity and inclusivity, helping us recognise the importance of advocacy and being advocates for ourselves and others. Advocates can proactively localise and mobilise for change-induced role modelling in a certain yet very profound way.”
A good mentor
A good mentor will focus on character rather than competence, says Narang. It is important to build the character of the individuals so that they are capable of tackling any difficulty, whether professional or personal, rather than developing competency in only one particular domain that they function in.
Another key characteristic of a good mentor is that he/she helps the mentees achieve their dreams, says Narang. He says, “A good mentor avoids overriding the dreams of the mentees. The mentor’s job is not to give them new dreams; the mentor’s job is to help the young mentees realise their dreams.”
As entrepreneurs, especially budding ones, you are constantly reminded of the things you cannot achieve, of the dreams that are too good to be true, of goals that are too big to be achieved. A mentor’s role is to help you realise those very goals, instead of downplaying it like everyone else.
The mentor observes the deficiency that a mentee has and helps understand how to overcome this deficiency, and how to build strength as a person and professional.
Now, you may be wondering what is in it for the mentor? In a world where you get nothing for free, what exactly drives the mentor to work so diligently towards improving someone else’s life?
Narang elaborates on this, ”When I started electronics design as my profession, I did not find anybody to mentor me and help me in the struggle. But when I started mentoring people, my personal credibility in the past 15-20 years has grown a lot. Because when they go out in the field and do something exceptional and say that they are from Narnix, that automatically adds another feather in my cap and helps build my credentials without my knowledge… is that not a good enough payback?”
Mentors for electronics start-ups
To scale up an organisation, you need to have a holistic understanding of the business that you are getting into, the domain in which the product functions, and of course the basic product too.
If your goal is to create a start-up based on the most lucrative business opportunity, scale up quickly within 3-4 years and then swiftly exit the scene with lots of money in your bank, your start-up is destined to fail.
“If you set up a company with a clear mind to exit, it will never ever reach a level where you can exit. You may exit, but after failure and not by monetising it. You need to set up a company with a strong foundation that you can nurture today and also in the future. If you build a company with that thought process and get the right kind of mentorship, there is a strong possibility that you will get the support you need from the ecosystem,” notes Narang.
The core of an electronics start-up is the technology it works with and, as with anything technical, it invariably demands certain indispensable skills from the people working on it.
A talented and skilled team will work diligently towards building a good product that is in the market to last.
But humans are not perfect and, as such, expecting a person to possess all the skills necessary to grow a start-up is very far-fetched. However, with good mentorship, it is possible to nurture a few, if not all, essential qualities that are a requisite for a successful company.
“The mentor will make sure that your team becomes a self-sufficient, well-rounded package within the next couple of months or years, based on your aspiration and current standing,” Narang adds.
A big part of leveraging a start-up’s growth is to look for means to attract more funds and get investors interested in the company. Thus, most start-ups typically look up to mentors who can help them target important investors and other means to scale up their business.
Those are, what Narang calls, ‘strategic mentors’ who help you effectively strategise your company’s growth. They act more like a consultant to your start-up to help you identify the correct growth opportunities.
Of course, their need can’t be unacknowledged, after all, helping individuals form strategies that work for their firm is a subset of the knowledge that a mentor imparts. However, a mentor’s role is much greater than that. For electronics start-ups, it is first important to gain the insights of a technology mentor, who can guide you through the technical aspects of setting up an electronics start-up.
Narang explains, “You need a technology mentor who can help you recognise the technologies available to you. He can make your product and service totally technologically rugged and reliable, world-class.”
But, as mentioned before, a mentor’s job is not to get things done for you. It is to help you build the ability to do those things yourself.
An electronic product’s essence lies in its design. The software and hardware of a product have a humongous effect on its usability and popularity among the end consumers. For an aspect that plays such a major role, you would think it is important enough to be included in the academic curriculum of engineering colleges. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
“Today we are missing the design competence in our engineers because it is not taught,” notes Narang. “I do not blame the young people because our education system does not have any subject that teaches you the design aspect of any electronic product, system, or solution as a subject.”
As such, youngsters just out of engineering colleges lack the essential skills to design electronic products or, for that matter, develop design solutions for other start-ups. The best way, in this scenario, is to acquire these skills in the field. But on-field experience comes with its own terrors. There are numerous hits-and-trials before one can figure out what works the best for their product and also adds value to their business.
Even if you plan to get some work experience in another organisation, chances are that you will be trained in only one particular domain under which your job role functions. The intricate nuances of designing a complete product, whether hardware or software, and explaining the entire architectural process of creating a design solution is hardly ever imparted to individuals. The guidance of an experienced mentor who has been there, and done that, can work magic in this case.
“You need to look out for people and reach out to those who can help you, but not spoon-feed you, to broaden your own understanding of what you need to do today, and in the future, to establish your start-up and to make it grow to a level of global acclaim,” says Narang.
On this note, it is also important to highlight the need for experience in the electronics field. The first wave of start-ups came three decades ago in Silicon Valley. If you look at the founders of those few successful start-ups, you will see that none of them was less than 35 or 40 years of age at that time, and none was beyond 55 or 60 years.
The crux of how these companies gained global success lies in the fact that their founders toiled for years in their particular domains before they sought out to create a venture of their own. They gained thorough knowledge of the industry they worked in, understood all the technical aspects of it, took part in developing and creating products for the organisations they worked for, without the fear of failure looming over them. They spent years in the trenches of their domain and eventually gained the knowledge to innovate a product or solution that they could monetise through their own company.
Many college students today aspire to become entrepreneurs right after they graduate. This mindset to work hard from an early age is, no doubt, a terrific trait, but this also sets you up to commit mistakes that you could have easily avoided had you gained some experience. Instead of chasing investors for your yet-to-be-established start-up, you should reach out to mentors who can help build the technical capabilities in you.
According to Narang, “Mentors will ensure that whatever product you release, does not lose its luster after six months or two years, but instead becomes unbeatable in their level of reliance and performance. If you want products like Apple’s or Samsung’s, you need people who have been in that field before you. How can you expect yourself or some young team of yours, which simply pick up some reference design from a silicon company and download some untested source codes from GitHub, to give you a reliable, global-scale product?”
The mentorship of an experienced professional should be especially sought during the initial years of founding a start-up. It is important to let a mentor identify and fill the gap in your skillset. Even their criticism comes with the desire to help you improve yourself and your product, and so should be taken in good stride.
Once you have learned everything that you needed to from your mentor, you will be ready to fly on your own like a young bird leaving the nest. You can definitely seek the advice of your mentor later on in your journey, if the need for help in strategising and understanding technical features arises.
“As the saying goes: The deeper the foundation, the higher the skyscraper goes. You need a mentor to set that foundation,” Narang adds.
Finally, it is especially important for budding entrepreneurs in the electronics industry to realise that the perfect use of technology is not to help you become a billionaire by the time you are a certain age. The best way start-ups can use technology is by creating a better future for themselves, for the others, and for the coming generations.
Technology should not drive your narrative but, instead, enable a better world. And that is exactly what a good mentor would help you achieve.