The word “mentor” is bandied about in Russia with surprising force for a country with such a young startup culture. They say that behind every successful startup lies at least one of these mysterious types. And with good reason, too: Ex-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the late Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs were mentors to Larry Page of Google fame; while Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg found mentor support in the shape of Jobs and ex-Washington Post CEO Don Graham. Even the likes of Microsoft founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen needed a push in the right direction from Ed Roberts, generally considered the father of the personal computer.

While firmly embedded in Western business culture, mentoring is in its infancy in Russia. Business leaders here are only now discovering the motivation for mentoring, how the practice differs from standard consultancy, and what it can – and can’t – do for startups.

Here we outline the different views of mentoring so you can define it for yourself.

Startup Sparring: the Ideal Mentor

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Alexei Solovyov

Executive Director, Prostor Capital

Mentoring is an ancient and international art going back as far as Ancient Greece and surviving through Soviet times, but technological advances in business have given the term a new lease on life. Modern dictionaries define the term “mentor” broadly as an advisor, a manager and a supervisor without explaining the subtle, yet critical, shades of meaning. But in an ever-changing world the definition is fluid at best, differing for each mentor and protégé you meet, as seen in a recent Russian internet forum debate.

What to Expect

One story to emerge from the debate was that of a budding entrepreneur in Russia who chose a prominent, global “business angel” as his mentor. After a series of delays, the mentor arranged a meeting. In Brazil. But as it turned out, the trip was worth it. To this day, the protégé considers the advice he received, “Believe in yourself. Dare. You will succeed,” to be the most valuable he has ever had.

And the other side of the coin: A mentor friend of mine was asked by his potential apprentice when he would receive a fully blown marketing strategy, and was upset to find that was never the deal.

A third scenario involves an entrepreneur friend of mine. He teamed up with a business angel based in America who invested a small amount in the startup. Despite having several successful startups behind him, the mentor gave us answers to our questions that seemed very distant to the reality that we lived in. But sometimes, they were bang on the money!

Which of these scenarios is the most desirable? Firstly, people who expect the mentor to take full responsibility for the project are in for a disappointment.

A mentor steers, but does not dictate. He or she assists, but does not control. Advice; not decisions.

The hero of the third scenario got lucky. He struck upon an angel, a mentor and a consultant all in one. As an investor he’s motivated to give the right advice. The “Brazil” story is not typical. Moral support is important but insufficient on its own. A mentor is an intellectual sparring partner who is more senior, wiser, more experienced. His or her mission is to ask the right questions, to evaluate ideas and to steer you toward the right decisions, which you carry the responsibility for.

How to Recognize a Mentor

You’ll find no shortage of failed consultants or ex-civil servants who position themselves as mentors. They can pose a risk, especially if they’ve never gone through the process of starting a business of their own. The mentor has a near-exhaustive knowledge of the issues surrounding a startup and should be able to comment on any aspect of launching a business. Becoming a mentor is achieved only through practice: by investment or entrepreneurship itself.

Don’t be afraid to study the biography of your future mentor, especially if a grant-giver comes from a state company.

A person who works exclusively as a mentor is, in my view, very suspicious.

Depth of Immersion

Some managers in the debate argued that a mentor is a strategist who shouldn’t delve too deep into protégé’s operating practices. Some entrepreneurs disagreed: If you don’t know a situation thoroughly, how are you supposed to give accurate advice? One startup creator said after the cash dried up at one of his enterprises, the mentor advised strengthening the sales department. “But we didn’t have the cash to pay anyone!” he said.

The depth of a mentor’s involvement should be limited.

Ideally, a mentor should be familiar with five or six key business indicators and once a month refresh his or her knowledge.

Business or Pleasure?

What the foundation for mentoring? Simply good relations or good business relations? There is no need to stalk the right mentor until he agrees to cooperate. There should be mutual business affection, one debate participant said: If the mentor starts talking about money for his work, I break it off immediately.

Another debater said he found a mentor in Silicon Valley who had gone from Indian immigrant to successful businessman and is happy to chat once a month. But for long-term collaboration this option isn’t too reliable – there is always the risk that the businessman will get bored and break it off.

A mentor is a partner who actively wants to and is able to help you and him or herself earn money. The work of a mentor can and should be free of charge. This helps avert any conflict of interests and ensures the mentor won’t ditch you.

If There’s No Salary, What Currency Can You Pay With?

A good option is including mentors in the board of directions with stock options. The Russian company VitaPortal has implemented this model. The founders came to an agreement with three international-level experts, one of whom was the renowned angel investor Esther Dyson. The board meets quarterly in Moscow, and VitaPortal foots the air fare. And it’s worth it: For example, in 2012, the mentors effectively saved the company by correcting its corporate strategy. They suggested a novel approach to content regarding health: personalizing user data based on health tests. The company not only survived, but surged to take the leading share of the market.

Another possible carrot for a mentor is offering a share in the business (usually 5%). This justifies the unpredictable volume of work the mentor might have to put in, and is low enough for the business to stomach. In the final analysis, that share won’t make or break you as a millionaire.

Mentors Come in All Shapes and Sizes

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Artur Baganov

General Director, Global TechInnovations

In Russia at this present moment in time, mentoring is pretty popular. Startups need knowledgeable people to help solve concrete problems that they meet on the path to development, and more and more people want to be or call themselves mentors. Also, many renowned people in the venture capital market say that mentoring should be free of charge. But when you ask these very people how many hours per week they’re ready to offer a startup, they clam up. On the other hand, I see how often entrepreneurs believe that their problems should be resolved by other people. I specifically mean solved, not help to solve, and that they must do it, and they must do it free of charge.

You can find free advice in the form of simple truths at any event that deals with technology entrepreneurship. However, it’s hard to ensure the necessary level of involvement in the project and its development. The situation is similar to hiring a team of staff. But in this case, the mentor route is chosen because startups can’t financially afford the services of the services of the best experts in the field.

It’s not that there’s a deficit of mentors in Russia, the problem is in choosing the right mentors who can add value to a startup.

A mentor isn’t professional work, it’s more like a hobby. This means that a person can’t hold mentoring in a professional regard, involving total commitment. That’s why an organization is needed that will facilitate the interactions of a mentor and a startup. On the one hand, a mentor must provide everything that a startup needs of him or her. But on the other hand, you need to hunt down the right mentor to deal with a particular startup. It’s not like the two parties bump into each other at a shindig and the mentor helps the startup with everything it needs.

One of the first classical approaches is transferring 5% of the startup to the mentor. But that’s not the right approach. And here’s why. If the mentor gets his 5% right from the start, then his motivation falls and his interest in active personal involvement in the project wanes. He gives one consultation and then disappears for good. And he can do that with a dozen startups – getting 5% from each and then sitting back to wait for one to boom.


A startup has a mass of processes on the go at any one time. This is where the mentor’s expertise comes into play: He or she can help set priorities for the tasks at hand and set deadlines to accomplish them. Due to the wealth of experience, a mentor can be irreplaceable as a strategist and stresses the key areas of focus to meet development goals. As a result, this helps to organize all these processes with far greater effectiveness. And very often the mentors are specialists in a very narrow field, often without realizing it. There are technology mentors who oversee the creation of a product or a technology. There are marketing experts, and they help in precisely this sphere. There are sales specialists who assist with client support and the development of a client base. There are venture specialists who know how to attract capital. So a good approach can be to select several mentors, as long as each is a specialist in a particular area.


A startup needs to figure out the competences that it lacks and in selecting a mentor study his or her field of expertise and seek feedback from trusted sources. You should then enter a trial period with the mentor to understand whether he or she is potentially useful to the project. Then you may discuss with any investors whether to continue work with the mentor over a longer timeframe and propose some form of compensation (like a share in the project).