P R Ganapathy | October 27, 2014

A social enterprise mentor’s dilemma

“The problem with the forks in life’s road, is that there are no green arrows.”   - Anon

The early stage of an entrepreneur’s journey is marked by many, many forks in the road. They face many choices that they have to make, and some of these are really monumental decisions with big, long-term, implications. With scarce resources, the chance for a do-over often doesn’t exist – if you don’t get it right the first time, you may crash and burn and never be able to rectify your trajectory.

So a problem we sometimes face at Villgro is when our view of the market opportunity and execution strategy differs from that of the entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship is almost by definition for optimists – unreasonable people fired up with the power of possibility. That optimism often causes them to take a rosier view of the problems they face, which could lead them to be inclined towards a choice that may be risky.

As mentors and funders, we are not as close to the problem and are therefore a little more dispassionate about the situation. We also have the benefit of the experience of working with many entrepreneurs. We may therefore have a different point of view from the entrepreneur on a decision facing the business. A big question that we then have to ask ourselves is: How can we most effectively provide our input to the entrepreneur?

There are two extremes – ‘laissez faire’ – where we don’t bother or interfere, and let the entrepreneur figure the answers out to these questions themselves, versus ‘helicopter parenting’ where we’re hovering over the entrepreneur and micro-managing every decision they make. The reason entrepreneurs come to an incubator is that they want more than just money – they want help and inputs in running their businesses. So laissez faire is not an option. But at the same time, it’s their idea and he/she is the entrepreneur. We have to remember that all the time. We may have funded them but the idea was theirs and their passion is critical to the enterprise’s success. So helicopter parenting isn’t an option either.

Ideally, decisions should be made objectively based on data, but we often find that we’re arguing choices with an entrepreneur without enough information. These different perspectives often lead to differences of opinion.

One technique I’ve found useful is to ask the entrepreneur to spend a little time in the field running a lean experiment or gather more information and data (sometimes I will accompany them in this exercise). There are several instances where the time spent in the field on a specific question will cause the entrepreneur to realise other perspectives on the question on hand. We’ll both be able to have a more objective discussion and come to a decision together, where we feel like we’ve moved them to a better path, and at the same time they have made the decision themselves.

It is important to also remember that these discussions should always be transactional – never let the arguments affect your relationships or cause suspicion to creep up between you and your investor / incubator.