Advice, Community, Mentors

How to find a mentor by not asking for one

I’m here to talk about building mentor relationships. I wish I could write a listicle or “how to” document. The truth is that building mentor relationships is complicated. There is nothing more personal or nuanced. I’m going to try to put into words how we over at Switchboard built our mentor relationships, and maybe parts will ring true to you.

1. The mentor arrives
The mentor doesn’t announce herself. She doesn’t arrive on horseback and blow a bugle to signal her arrival as The Mentor. The best way to describe the feeling of knowing the mentor has arrived is to recognize the feeling of wanting to be led by the person before you.

As David Foster Wallace said… “[A] real leader is somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.”

When that person arrives, I feel a stirring in my heart and a desire to download that person’s brain. I follow my intuition, seize the opportunity, and figure out a way to do that that is fun for the both of us.

2. Call the mentor into service
There are a few things that I’ve learned about asking for a mentor’s help. We never ask them to be our mentor. This sounds counterintuitive. Sheryl Sandberg writes about this in a chapter in Lean In called “Don’t Ask Anyone to be Your Mentor.” And I think she has a point. Corbett Barr says something similar over at Fizzle. ” In the real world, mentors are usually organic relationships without specific titles, goals or responsibilities.”

We at Switchboard often ask people to help us solve problems during a defined period of time. Sometimes that means informal drinks every month. Sometimes that means having a jam session where we brainstorm a new feature or streamlined a process with a “think tank” of mentors (pictured above with Tom, James, and Jessica). There are many benefits to this approach: a core team is formed, we don’t have to play “telephone” in translating one person’s opinion to another, and there’s an energy of excitement and shared purpose.

We ask for unorthodox favors. For example, I once posted on PDX Startups Switchboard in which I asked if any local founders would be willing to invite me to their all hands staff meetings. Our team had just expanded. I didn’t know how to structure or lead a meeting. As you’ll see from the post, Cloudability’s Mat and Little Bird’s Marshall generously hosted me and I constantly refer to what I learned there.

If we find a mentor who is an exceptionally busy person (like Matt the founder of Metafilter, pictured), we’ll ask them to come in to PIE and give a talk so others in the office can benefit and we can hear the questions that other companies have. We also have many mentors who are younger than us (like Kaori). This is often overlooked. As Bill Nye put it, “Everyone you meet knows something you don’t.”

3. Listen to the mentor
It may seem obvious, but I’m constantly working on how to listen better to my mentors. I’ll vision how I want the time to go before we meet. I say things to myself like,  “I will ask questions that start with ‘how did you…” and ‘what did you…'” “I will listen more than I talk.” “These are the points they made last time I’d like to follow up on.” Larry King put it,  “I’ve never learned anything while I was talking.” Listening, truly listening without looking for the opportunity to respond, is a difficult art.

4. Thank the mentor
This cannot be overstated. Thank. The. Mentor. We do our best to follow up. Whether we work with someone over months or just one afternoon, we make sure to follow up with the outcome of our time together. This is in the form of a quick email. “Just wanted to let you know that the feature we talked about is live!” This makes mentors feel like their time is well spent and there was a tangible outcome to our work together. We send thank you notes and describe how they helped us and why we value their contribution. I once ambushed Guy Kawasaki at a conference and, for that hour, he was an invaluable mentor who gave us input that significantly changed the direction of our product (his thank you card and keyboard stickers pictured). I’ve found that no act of mentorship is too small to be acknowledged.

The full circle of our time as mentees is that we are now called on to mentor in return. And the best way those relationships begin is not with, “Will you be my mentor” but rather “Hi. Let’s hang out.”

 

Mara Zepeda is the cofounder and CEO of Switchboard as well as a mentor at PIE. Find her on Twiter @marazepeda and visit Portland Startups Switchboard to see how they’re helping the Portland startup community.
Alumni, Community

Build the Best Rainbow


Hi there,

Mara here from Switchboard. There are six days left to apply to PIE. I’m going to tell you why you should.

So before we get started I want you to go and visit another three incubators’ websites. Just the first three that pop into your head. Go on. Take a look around. Check out the photos. Watch the videos. I want you to ask yourself this question: what is the culture of this incubator? Go ahead. I’ll wait here.

Are you back? Hi again.

Now please watch this video about PIE.

Here’s the thing: the word incubator is problematic. It implies that you are going to enter into an isolation tank of like-minded, ambitious entrepreneurs. You’ll sleep under your desk, subsist on ramen, and meet all day with people in t-shirts and blazers. A white board and marker will be the most creative tools at your disposal. Here’s the other thing:  companies are shaped by the culture of their incubator. Just like an artist (we’ll get to that part in a minute), the technology you create is a reflection of the ecosystem you are in. If you are in a sensory deprived cubicle tethered to your laptop mindlessly inhaling processed noodles in an office of people doing the same what you create will be informed by that environment. And until I discovered PIE, that environment looked bleak, homogenous, and unstimulating.

If you want a sense of why I thought this this was the work I was doing prior to starting Switchboard, and this was the view from my front yard. Yeah. An isolation tank of geeks was my worst nightmare. I resigned myself to the fact that technology was completely incompatible with humanity, beauty, and delight.

And then I discovered PIE. PIE is the most creative incubator in the most creative company in the most creative building in the most creative city in the world.

There I said it.

So why is creativity important? Because creating technology is an act of art. As Paul Graham put it: “What hackers and painters have in common is that they’re both makers. Along with composers, architects, and writers, what hackers and painters are trying to do is make good things.”And every act of art is about stealing. Austin Kleon, the authority on creativity and stealing, said it best: “You are, in fact, a mashup of what you choose to let into your life. You are the sum of your influences.” So look for the incubator that will help you become the best thief, and steal from the most creative people, with the most diverse resources, so you can make the best thing.

What do I mean by resources? Well, there’s all the stuff you already know. You will get money. You will get desks in a beautiful light-filled office. You will have access to generous, big-hearted, life-changing mentors. You’ll share the experience with other visionary companies. There’s free beer and lunch. Program directors Kirsten, Rick, and Renny will light the path with a disarmingly effective combination of competence, empathy, ball-busting, and sardonic wit. But if you look around, as I did, you will also get a schmorgasboard of an ecosystem. And you can gorge yourself.

I want to share with you 20 parts of my ecosystem and the profound impact they had on the technology we built. Here, I’ve even made you a map. As you can see, 99% of this ecosystem is within a five minute walk of PIE’s office.

1. Our team is made up of whip-smart students funneled from nearby Reed College and Portland State University. The city is bursting with young, hungry, diverse, creative talent.

2. We are reminded, every day, that the work comes first, that the person with the best story wins, and to fail harder. These messages are written in the walls of the Wieden+Kennedy.

3. In this building there is a drawer of glitter and a letterpress in the basement. They emit a sonar of inspiration.

4. On the roof deck there is a hammock. In the summer there are parties and sometimes a chest freezer of popsicles appears. On clear days there is a direct view of Mt.Hood.

5. This is John Jay. His office faces 12th street. I’ve seen his light on at 1 AM. If you are working half as hard as John works you might be on the right track.

6. Wieden+Kennedy commissions artists to make art in their lobby. When I’m sick of staring at my computer I can watch people live paint. Wat.

7. When I’m tired, I can take a nap in the nap room. Or get a massage.

8. When I’m lethargic I hoola-hoop to Snoop Dog on the basketball court. Sometimes I’m joined by random children. This weekend we watched Drunken Master in the office.

9. There is also a human sized nest.

10. This one time, Pink Martini performed in the lobby amidst 6,000 balloons. I could go on. Let’s leave the building, shall we?

11. A few blocks away is the largest new and used bookstore in the world, Powell’s. I’ve spent entire days reading on the floor.

12. Around the corner you’ll find Maurice, a pastry luncheonette started with a Kickstarter campaign. I go here to be reminded of what can be made on a shoestring.

13. I’ve been schooled in the art of customer service at Nong’s, a Thai chicken food cart. Nong is the local entrepreneur I admire the most.

14. Thank you cards are our most important business expense. We buy them at Oblation and Blick Art Supply.

15. Observing the operations at the Ace Hotel, Stumptown, Heart Coffee, Canoe, Multnomah Whiskey Library, Blue Star Donuts and Tilt has taught me so much about marketing, workflow, and customer experience.

16. I could go on about the city’s cultural offerings: Creative Mornings, ADX, XOXO, TechFest Northwest, DesignWeek, the Yale Union, the Portland Art Museum.  Have I mentioned the nature? And then there are the artists and makers. The number of people doing awesome things here is startling. It’s like a 21st-century Florence. It’s intimate, scrappy, collaborative, boot-strappy and on the brink.

17. When I started PIE I didn’t know how to breathe or turn my mind off. I learned both through a daily practice at YoYo Yogi.

18. There is an abundance of crappily written but useful business books. There is no need to buy them. I check them out from the Multnomah Public Library.

19. Then there is Peter.  He sells the Street Roots newspaper in front of the nearby Whole Foods. He’s my Patron Saint of Perseverance.

20. When I forget what matters in the world, what really matters, I stand in front of these doors.

So, look. Perhaps making software in an acultural vacuum is your jam. This factory farm incubator model is the rule, not the exception. Switchboard would never have grown, let alone flourished, out of this arid soil.

I’m writing this love letter to the handful of people reading this who dream of something else (this is sounding eerily familiar..it’s different, I promise). You’re a resilient, resourceful, rule-bending scamp who thrives on making something from nothing. You’re more interested in building the world’s best rainbow, not discovering the pot of gold at the end. You can stop looking. We’re waiting for you. Join us.

Mara Zepeda and Sean Lerner co-founded Switchboard and met on Twitter