Why mentoring startups is the ‘secret sauce’ of corporate innovation

Much of what shaped me as a founder, entrepreneur, and venture capitalist is my teaching experience; both as a teacher and as a ward. After mentoring many amazing founders – both as a mentor at Techstars and as a mentor in the Google Climate Program and other programs – mentoring has become part of my personality.

Mentoring is a great mechanism for both startup founders and corporate employees to build personal relationships and learn how they can help each other. The startup ecosystem is, after all, built on networks of people helping each other. The founders help other founders gain customers, talent and raise capital, while investors share deals with other investors and make referrals. So you build your reputation and network. In the long run, it all translates into business value and impact.

That’s why we’ve made mentoring part of our startup activities Siemens Energy Ventures. It helps close many mental and operational gaps when startups and corporations work together.

“Startups fear corporations will slow them down. Corporations fear startups fail fast ”

Some startups fear that corporations will slow them down, misunderstand them and even fear that corporations will steal their product idea. On the other hand, corporations fear that startups will fail quickly, will be too fragile and will not bring a quick return on their investment. Building trust between them is the only way to work together.

Our main principle is to add value to the founders. We therefore encourage Siemens Energy executives and employees to share their commercial and technological experiences. In return, they learn about the journey, challenges, and technologies of startup founders. This allows our organization to change the mood and return these perspectives to the business to create a faster and more innovative organization. It also allows us to build our reputation in global startup ecosystems not as take-offs but as real startup partners.

How do we instruct?

We are creating a startup mentoring platform that includes two types of interactions with organizations. We can adapt a special mentoring program for strategic partners. A good example is our partnership with Breakthrough Energy, a network of initiatives founded by Bill Gates to help scale the technology we need to achieve zero emissions by 2050.. We collaborated with them Scholarship program and found teachers in Siemens Energy who could help them commercialize and scale their climate business.

Another type is with ecosystem partners, where we simply connect Siemens Energy employees through mentoring programs like at Techstars and Carbon 13 and help our teachers join existing mentoring opportunities.

Who are our teachers?

We have expert mentors who support founders on a specific topic such as hydrogen, cybersecurity or product management. Lead mentors are teachers who are willing to invest a little more time in a relationship and will accompany the team or founders without much attention. They help them navigate issues such as team building, business development and technology, and mostly connect them with other relevant professional teachers.

We also have mentoring executives – members of the senior Siemens Energy team – who give the founders such a top-notch perspective. Managing support is one of the key factors in successful venture capital in corporations, and the fact that our executives mentor startup founders accelerates and strengthens our ability to build and scale our venture activities and develop the 3V operating model.

How mentoring fits into our work model

Siemens Energy works with startups in three ways – we call it the 3V model:

  • Venture construction – the creation of new energy and climate companies for Siemens Energy
  • Venture Client – Identify business challenges and pilot startup management to address these issues.
  • Venture capital is an investment in startups to decarbonise and transition energy and help them scale.

Mentoring fits into this model in different ways. Teachers can be the first step towards deeper engagement with founders. They understand the company and see if it will fit into one of three mechanisms. They can then refer them to a venture capital team for strategic investment or to a venture capital team for pilot piloting.

In addition, teachers return what they have learned in collaboration with the founders of startups, to our in-house developers. They can become in-house coaches and teachers and help in-house businesses grow and scale.

8 principles of mentoring

We have developed several guidelines that guide our staff to become the best teachers for founders and startup teams:

1 / Don’t expect anything in return

Mentoring is one of the ways we add value to founders and startups in the first place. We do not mentor because we expect that each interaction will lead to a new income stream or investment opportunity. We teach because we want to help founders and innovators succeed and thus revitalize society.

2 / Be aware of when to train and when to advise

There is a difference between coaching, counseling and mentoring. I see mentoring as a combination of coaching and counseling. The worst teachers I’ve seen are the ones who tell the founder what to do, or constantly criticize him for acting differently. A great teacher knows how to switch between counseling and coaching. The teacher can advise the founder by telling his personal stories and experiences and offering help in making decisions. Really great teachers are coaches and ask guiding questions to help the founders find the answer themselves.

3 / Be open to learning

Mentoring is a two-way street, and great teachers see mentoring as growth and experience for themselves. Mentoring is not only how you help founders become better, build better business and products, it is also an opportunity to learn new technology, business model and something about yourself as a professional and leader.

4 / Support the founders mentally

Being the founder of a startup is a real roller coaster. It is also one of the loneliest experiences in business. Founder Mentoring is not only about guiding someone on how to build a financial model or writing a better business plan, it is also supporting founders at the high and low levels of starting a startup, paying attention to it and showing great empathy when needed.

5 / Ask a lot of guiding questions

Questions are a great tool for mentoring. Usually when I start mentoring a new startup, I know nothing about the founder, the business, the team and the market. I use questions to learn about this business, and in doing so, I help the founder refine the business proposition, vision, and help them form a strong opinion about the market and the product.

6 / Listen first and then be sincere and clear. Don’t hide the truth from the founders

As a founder, I had many “pseudo-friendly mentors” who were not effective and even harmful. These teachers weren’t honest with me, and they were just … nice. They didn’t want to disappoint me, so they told me what I wanted to hear, not what I needed to hear from them. They did not ask me difficult questions and did not offer to do otherwise. You may be good, but still be honest!

7 / Share your own story

There is nothing stronger than personal stories and experiences. Make yourself vulnerable as a teacher and share your personal stories. When you share them, tell not only your success stories but also your failures. These stories are a way to connect on a deeper level with the founder and show empathy. Your stories arouse curiosity and a different level of conversation, which is very useful for founders at any stage.

8 / Open your networks, connections and hearts

I always tell the teachers I work with that “one introduction can change multiple lives”. Representing and helping founders build their network is a basic tenet of being a teacher. I had the opportunity to see how a simple acquaintance between the founder and my other contact creates great things, from helping to find a co-founder to closing a leading investor. Make an intro with an optimistic mood that something great can happen with this simple action!

The mentorship of startups and founders has transformed me as a founder, investor and as a person. I believe that adding mentorship to startups and founders and introducing it as a core part of the corporate innovation culture can also change organizations and moods. This could be the key to making corporations and startups work more effectively together.

Eli Gesheit is a partner of Siemens Energy Ventures.

Leave a Comment