Conversations with mentors are super valuable, but can go off-track in a couple predictable ways. It’s easy to fix once you can spot it and take a little responsibility for the direction of the conversation.
#1: Suggestion loop
The most common way these conversations stop being valuable is exemplified by the phrase, “And you could also do…” It could be a product or a strategy suggestion. Once they start coming, they usually keep coming — you’ll need to actively stop the cycle (without killing the excitement).
Confusingly, this is still an important milestone for the relationship. They’ve mentally bought in to the idea and see potential. While the suggestions themselves aren’t valuable unless you’re actively looking for ideas, the fact that the person has come around to your side of the table is hugely important.
How to fix it: You need to re-focus on your current problems. I say something like, “Those are all awesome ideas–if you were in my shoes, how soon would you start working on them right now?” And they’ll usually say something like, “Well, no, you need to finish cracking the core experience first, but maybe next year sometime.” And then you can have a more immediately actionable conversation about what you should be doing this week or this month.
This is the best general pattern for helpful experts: get them excited about the big picture, then bring them back to your current short-term challenges & constraints.
#2: Business model stew
If you talk to a dozen mentors, you’re probably getting good advice form all of them. Unfortunately, they likely to each be talking about different business models!
If you try to follow all of it, you end up with strategic feature creep. Instead of one focused business model, you’re simultaneously working on three slightly different business models which have all been mushed together.
How to fix it: After a bunch of mentor meetings, I like to detox by trying to see how many different business models and products I can find inside of my head. Sometimes I do quick sketches on the business model canvas, and other times just writing a sentence is enough. The goal is to find and separate the component parts. Fuzzy ideas are bad because they’re hard to prove right or wrong. It’s much faster to sequentially attack a bunch of simple models.
Zoning out is the sign that you need to step up
The meetings should be really valuable. If you find yourself zoning out, it’s a sign that the meeting has gone off track.
It’s very rare that the conversation will fix itself. There’s value inside the mentor’s head which you need to get at. It’s your responsibility as the founder to take a second and figure out why the conversation isn’t being as useful as it should be, and fix it.
Younger founders are less likely to fix these conversations, and then afterwards they’re frustrated by what appears to be worthless feature suggestions or conflicting advice. There’s an age/power gap at play and founders too often cede control of the agenda to the older and more successful mentor. The mentor you’re talking to doesn’t know what you need — they’re there to help, but you need to point them in the right direction.