The Mentor Advantage

When John Hering, CEO and cofounder of Lookout Mobile Security, was featured in BusinessWeek as one of the best young tech entrepreneurs, he told the magazine that the “toughest decision” he ever made as an executive was moving his startup from L.A. to San Francisco.

What didn’t get reported was that a 73-year-old named Philip Paul had advised Hering to make the move, in order to be closer to investors. Paul, a gray-haired financier who appears nowhere in Lookout’s roster of executives or founders, nevertheless holds one of the most important title’s in Hering’s life: that of mentor.

As technology entrepreneurs seemingly get younger and younger, it’s easy to forget that the difference between a bright technology idea and business success often comes down to the advice and connections of older advisors.

“We see a lot of young people who are very intelligent, mastering technical skills very early, but that is different than building a big or sustainable business,” says Nick Seguin, manager of entrepreneurship at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which studies and supports entrepreneurial activity in the United States. Seguin says companies often “begin to take off” only when a mentor gets involved.


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Hering, now 28, is certainly a success story. His company, cofounded with two college friends, makes software that 20 million people use to protect cell phones from malware; it is valued at around $1 billion. But he says that in the company’s early days he didn’t know anything about business and relied heavily on Paul for encouragement, as well as to help him shape a business plan and find investors. “We learn from each other, and it’s one of the deepest relationships I have,” says Hering. “I am tremendously fortunate to have met with Phil.”

Other generation-spanning relationships in the tech world have recently drawn attention: for example, the bond between 27-year-old Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and 66-year-old Washington Post CEO Donald Graham bridges not only decades but also old and new media. But some observers believe that in the current technology-startup boom, there aren’t enough qualified mentors to go around. Exacerbating the demand for business advice is the recent surge in venture accelerators, which promise to quickly help startup companies develop—often by dangling the promise of advice from experienced entrepreneurs. According to some estimates, there are now over 60 venture accelerators in the United States—more than triple the number in 2009.

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