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This is Ian Ozsvald's blog (@IanOzsvald), I'm an entrepreneurial geek, a Data Science/ML/NLP/AI consultant, author of O'Reilly's High Performance Python book, co-organiser of PyDataLondon, a Pythonista, co-founder of ShowMeDo and also a Londoner. Here's a little more about me.

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16 May 2012 - 20:21Mentorship groups in StartupChile

A group of us have been running a mentorship group here in StartupChile, it makes up for the lack of external mentorship (a sad deficiency in the programme). I think that more startups ought to be in mentorship groups so I’ll write about what we do.

What is it? A group of 6 of us meet once a week (10am, local Starbucks) for about 1.5 hours, we cover how our companies have progressed since the last meet, discuss problems and set new goals. We’re accountable to each other and know that our peers are smart enough to call us out if we’re fibbing.

Early goals? Emily and I used to be a part of a similar group back in the UK – having peers who’d hold us accountable was super-useful whilst we figured out which things were hard (which typically we might try to ignore) and worked through to solutions. We missed that structure here in StartupChile so we built our own.

Outcomes? We’ve witnessed one company choose to fold and reinvent itself, another start to question its market, another to collapse the bigger ambitions and to take on a more manageable sub-task during Year 1 and for me I’d realised my earlier Customer Discovery process was weak (which I’m now addressing lest I get a drubbing from my peers). These changes occurred in the last couple of weeks (all pretty dramatic and darned sensible). We’ve been running for 7 or so weeks and we’ll continue for as long as we’re still resident here – the meetings carry great value for all in attendance.

Structure? Each person gets 5 minutes (timed on a phone with a loud audio alert) to talk through their progress in the last week and to mention where they’re at with last week’s goals. Once we’ve done everyone (30 minutes) we move on to problems, we share questions and issues and ask for feedback. This is meant to last for 5 minutes (we use the countdown alert again) but if the problem is interesting then we’ll run on (maybe to 10 minutes), often a lot of learning can occur as we try to solve each other’s problems. Finally we set a new goal for next week, we run through the group setting one or two achievable goals. Mine for next week is to have a better grasp of the competitive landscape in the run up to StartupChile’s Demo Day.

Typically we run for 1-1.5 hours. Someone (normally me) has to be the Chairman to make sure things keep moving. You need firm Chairman lest one or two people take over the meeting and turn it into a bore.

How to start one? Find 3-6 other companies who are roughly at the same stage and doing related things (e.g. companies doing early stage hardware, public software and r&d around baby-care might mix but companies doing only web-related stuff at an alpha/beta stage are probably a better match). Agree to meet each week at a set time. Agree on a Chairman. Agree to Chatham House Rules (“what is said in the room stays in the room”) and let people state when things have to be kept completely private within the group.

After the first few meetings fix the group (anyone who rarely attends gets kicked) so the group can trust whoever is present and not expect the surprise of new people. If the group loses people over time (we’ve lost a couple due to the natural evolution of startups) then invite a few others in with consent from the group. Keep meeting. Keep pushing each other to make smarter decisions. Don’t hold off of the hard questions. Make yourself accountable.

The main goal is to build a team that’s stronger than the sum of its parts. Working in isolation means you get to avoid the hard questions and perhaps avoid taking account of your progress – there’s nowhere to hide when your peers are waiting for your weekly progress report.

A similar goal seems to be behind the new NReduce startup collaboration project and the weekly dinners at YCombinator are well known. Being accountable to your peers works.

Ian applies Data Science as an AI/Data Scientist for companies in ModelInsight, sign-up for Data Science tutorials in London. Historically Ian ran Mor Consulting. He also founded the image and text annotation API Annotate.io, co-authored SocialTies, programs Python, authored The Screencasting Handbook, lives in London and is a consumer of fine coffees.

2 Comments | Tags: Entrepreneur, StartupChile