Why Maine Needs More Startup Mentors

August 19, 2017

12:45 pm

With the Maine tech ecosystem making waves, there is an increasing need for more mentors.

Kerem Durdag, is an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Maine Technology Institute, during which time he worked with 16 separate startups. He shares his thoughts as to why the EIR program needs a massive amount of mentors to keep up with the activity and move the ecosystem to the next level.

 

“This pipeline of activity runs the risk of collapsing onto itself because if the founders/entrepreneurs are unable to show progress and notch up milestone execution and success, the champions of the ecosystem will tire out and the community at large (the population of Maine, the taxpayers and all the other stakeholders) will get discouraged and disillusioned,” Kerem said.

 

“So we have to engage, we have to help and we have to create the infrastructures to incentivize and allow for the value of this assistance to be recognized.”

This interview has been edited for length. 

You became EIR at MTI after shutting down of your company. What did you learn about yourself during that transition?

Well, for me the transition was going from a sense of exhaustion (coupled with a feeling of momentary irrelevance) and a desire to re-achieve a sense of quiet and centering to wanting to completely engage in action… a desire for epic-ness (I mean watching a clip of Jamie McDonald does massive wonders of perspective and joy). I am not suggesting a linearity of approach here; far from it. The intent to impact things (people, processes, businesses, initiatives, world at large, et. al.) went through stages of evolution arriving at (yet again) a familiar location: I want to belong/matter/help, therefore I am.

For me, the transition was a progression toward, “what do I really, really want to do that is potentially transformational?” The EIR gig at MTI gave me that hand to grab onto tightly and allowing a vibrant mental space to think things through while engaged in the act of doing.

How does the EIR program provide value for the startups?

In my opinion it is a transformative game changer that needs to be leveraged by 10× and deployed at a larger scale. Traditional mentor roles are defined (as they should) with guide ways of involvement and engagement, which are contextually driven (mentoring as a board member is different than mentoring as a trusted confidante which is different than mentoring as a consultant which is different that mentoring as a member of the ecosystem). Expectations are commensurate with desire and availability (psychological and as well as financial).

However, in the MTI EIR engagement two enormous aspects are addressed that enable an efficient, scalable and data driven ROI. One is financial (EIRs are compensated with no financial burden to the company) and the second is a sense of connectivity and understanding. There is longevity to the engagement, on a consistent and constant basis (I met with some companies religiously once a week for several hours). Also, keep in mind that the EIR group has a multiplicity of skill sets and expertise in its ranks. So, if there was an occasion where I needed additional perspective on say manufacturing process, financial systems, equity raising, sales training, I could reach out to my friends. Members of the EIR know each other well because we have been members of the business community for a long time. Folks like John Karp, Carl Spang, Roger Brooks and Paul Myers are my really good friends.

I don’t want to forget about the underlying reason for our engagement as EIRs: We want to give back. We want to maximize involvement. There is a general selflessness here to contribute. And to be in the thick of things. In that act of selflessness, the potential of underlying agendas disappear (founders are passionate and sometimes paranoid). We are not helping in order to gain any kind of involvement in the company (monetary, legal, corporate, employment, etc.). We are just there to help.

What did you learn as an EIR about the state of the startup ecosystem

The need is far and wide and deep for mentors to help the ecosystem. Oh my God, the need is far and wide and deep. There is a state-wide clamoring for help by companies; they need folks to know that they are not alone, that we care and there is expert help to be at their side at a very continual basis. And the help is present that can transform (and sometimes save… in my tenure we actually saved several companies from literally evaporating) the companies because the EIRs are involved up to their elbows with the nitty-gritty stuff (because they are trusted and they are spending the time). Keep in mind that startups and small businesses are not just like any other business, they have their own dynamic, their own challenges and their own world they operate in, so unless you are from that world it is awfully hard for someone else to navigate the mentorship journey.

In the last 15 years we have done a fairly good job of creating a culture where risk taking is at least not rejected at first moment of ideation… so there is a good amount of startup activity that is fundamentally aided and abetted by seed money from the likes of Maine Angels, MTI, MVF and CEI on a state-wide level. The issue is that without the mentoring this pipeline of activity runs the risk of collapsing onto itself because if the founders/entrepreneurs are unable to show progress and notch up milestone execution and success, the champions of the eco-system will tire out and the community at large (the population of Maine, the taxpayers and all the other stakeholders) will get discouraged and disillusioned. Given there is already a very large paucity of second-stage, large-growth capital in Maine (capital that fuels the growth of the company once it has achieved sizeable revenue and breakeven), we can’t allow the highway of travel we are on to contain the carcasses of failed companies, where the failure was predominated by lack of entrepreneurial experience and maturity. So we have to engage, we have to help and we have to create the infrastructures to incentivize and allow for the value of this assistance to be recognized.

Which is why I utterly, completely and absolutely believe that if we are to enable economic development in Maine via startups and entrepreneurs to be a success, the EIR program has to be scaled up. Make it a professional corps and significantly financially incentivize them to be compensated for their full-time involvement, get world-class talent and focus them in for one or two years and cycle them out. It has be scaled up because the data shows with EIRs involved the success of the companies rises exponentially (there is a reason why in VC or PE investments, portfolio companies are assigned a partner). It ensures success. Such best practices need to be deployed here in Maine. Otherwise, the results are not going to be those we are proud of.

Read more about emerging startups in Maine at TechCo

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Whit Richardson is a former daily newspaper journalist in Portland, Maine, who has covered business and entrepreneurship for the past decade. He's founder of Maine Startups Insider and currently editor-in-chief of 4Front Publishing, an online news startup covering the nascent legal cannabis industry.

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