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As a first-time founder, I knew I needed advice when I was building a company… plenty of it, in fact. While passionate about building great products, I needed guidance from people with more experience and knowledge to get a startup off the ground. It might have been my first rodeo, but I was aware that it takes more than a great product to build a great enterprise.
Early on in this startup journey, I left San Francisco to join an accelerator in Milwaukee, and remember a piece of advice I received there: that I should embrace the “founder lifestyle.” This meant, in part, living on the bare minimum — and for me, that included eating much instant ramen and crashing on friends’ couches to save money. After all, I kept hearing, that’s what so many successful founders did, so I dove headfirst into the advice, was essentially homeless for six months, and while I wound up with a ton of memorable stories (hit me up on Twitter if you want to hear them), the result was not good for the company or my physical and mental health.
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Based on this little misadventure, along with other bits of guidance I picked up from reading, networking and Googling, I realized that I needed mentors who were capable of empathizing with me as an individual, rather than internalize advice written by founders who didn’t share my lived experiences. I needed to identify people who shared my cultural values and outlook — who could understand the nuances of being a Vietnamese immigrant and first-time founder. Believe it or not, I typed my last name into LinkedIn, discovered another Vietnamese entrepreneur who’d built and sold a startup, reached out to ask for mentorship, and he said “Yes.” This man also became one of my earliest investors!
I wish I could say that finding the right mentor is always that easy. Typically, there’s a great deal more that goes into the process. At this point in my career, I’ve been lucky enough to have found a host of wonderful mentors who have helped me launch Lumanu, a tech platform we built to empower creators as entrepreneurs and make the creator economy more inclusive. These are the biggest lessons I’ve learned in finding them.
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Find a common denominator
When you’re looking for a mentor, it’s essential to find a thread that connects. For me, that meant finding someone who shared my passion for building products or who could relate to my immigrant background. This is not to say that you need to find a carbon copy of yourself — just someone who has enough similarities in background and lived experiences to allow for an authentic connection, which ultimately helps you get more actionable and relevant advice. It was immensely helpful for me to have mentors who were also immigrants, since they helped me identify blind spots that many immigrant founders have, but which you seldom read about on Techcrunch or Forbes.
Define your \ask\
When starting a new relationship, especially one in which you’re asking someone to invest valuable time and energy in your growth and development, make it as easy as possible for the person to agree. Avoid asking a potential mentor to hold your hand for the foreseeable future as you build your company from the ground floor. Instead, define specific areas where you most need help — whether how to fundraise more effectively or how to be more intentional in hiring — because having a defined “ask” helps you set clear parameters for the relationship (including knowing when it’s time to end or dial it down). Once you’ve secured the essential information and guidance, it’s perfectly acceptable to thank your mentor for their time and move on.
Related: Five Reasons Why Every Entrepreneur Needs A Great Mentor
Mentor as micro-boss
I sometimes get obsessed with solving particular problems or diving into the daily operations of the business, which can cause me to lose sight of longer-term goals. Even with all the autonomy that comes with being a CEO, it’s hard to maintain focus and accountability across all responsibilities.
This is exactly why I prepare a detailed agenda before every mentor meeting outlining the topics I want to discuss — areas that need immediate attention and action steps to get there. By asking my mentors to serve as my “micro-boss,” I’m giving them permission to hold me accountable to goals, and challenge me if things veer off course.
Interestingly, as I started interacting more with creators, I realized that the most successful among them all have mentors themselves — usually others who shared the same lived experiences but are further along in their entrepreneurial journey. That’s why Lumanu invests so much in community; we are deeply passionate about empowering creators to help each other, and in doing so, spark relationships that can blossom into mentorships.
The importance of mentorship — no matter how it’s delivered — simply cannot be underestimated. The trick is to find someone who will give advice best suited for you and what you’re trying to accomplish.