Why Mentoring Is Important Especially For Startup Founders
There are just somethings you can’t learn from a book
When I was growing up, teachers in my school were the wise Yodas, the know it all, the walking encyclopedias. They had all the answers any kid could possibly have growing up. Why the sky is blue, will the ocean run out of water and why do chicken lay eggs. However the more I grew up, the more I realized experience is a far greater teacher than any book I could ever read. As I started my career path in the startup world, the CEOs would often talk about the mentors they had and how they were a fountain of knowledge and a guiding force to the next level. It seemed no CEO should walk the startup path alone, they all needed a mentor to guide them in the ways of growth and venture capitalists and guess what, most of them did have mentors. Which got me to thinking, why are mentors so important for founders? are they all that? is this all a passing fad like Orange is the New Black or do mentors really do make a good CEO great and transform great CEOs into exceptional ones?
For this article, I reached out to Miguel Latorre, who on top of being a Managing Director of a global business services provider, has just recently become a startup mentor for Plug and Play Tech Center and asked him all the question we, including myself, are all dying to find out more about such as why mentors matter,what mentees can learn, and most importantly how to get one for ourselves! This isn’t really an interview ‘coz that just sounds too formal, like something a Boomer would do, let’s call it a sharing sesh and grabbing coffee with a mentor.
So let’s dive right in!
- Let’s start at the beginning, tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
Sure, I was born in Spain and lived there till I was 22 years old. I went to Germany to continue my studies and then moved to Scotland and afterwards to Australia to immerse myself in English. When I was in Australia, due to its proximity to Indonesia, I started to learn more and more about Indonesia, its people, economy and culture. I was very lucky that after my time in Australia, I was able to work at the Spanish Embassy in Indonesia as a foreign trade advisor. Having spent sometime in the Spanish Embassy, I saw there was plenty of opportunities for business in Indonesia and decided to establish my own company.
2. Currently you are the Managing Director of Vistra Indonesia, which was originally Global Expandia, a company which you yourself built from the ground up and later acquired by Vistra. Recently, you were made a startup mentor for Plug and Play Tech Center. Can you share with us what made you do a 180 degree change and decide to leave the comforts of civil service and international organization life and become the entrepreneur and mentor that you are today?
I did work at the Spanish Embassy in Indonesia and also at the European Parliament in Brussels, but the change of path wasn’t a direct 180 degree change. What happened was, after I worked at the Spanish Embassy, I established my own import export company. For the first few years, business was really booming. And then, the unthinkable happened, there was a global financial crisis in 2008 and everyone, including myself got hit bad. It was something that at that time, the company could not recover from. So I went back to Spain in 2010 and worked as a Business Development Manager at a large company, overseeing the expansion in Southeast Asia and other Asian countries, including Hong Kong and South Korea. This was where I felt the calling of my life was. After sometime in that Spanish company, I decided to take a Masters degree at the Boston University campus in Brussels. While doing my masters, I took a job in the European Parliament, let’s just say that it was different then what I had expected. By that time, the economy in Asia started to recover and I thought to myself, it was time to go back and try again. So I did. I went back to Indonesia and established Global Expedia which was a business services company. Having learned from my previous experiences, this company grew fast. It grew significantly that around two years after its establishment, I was approached by Vistra, which is a global services company regarding acquisition. After some time, I took the offer and here we are today. The great thing about being part of the Vistra family is that it’s not only a match between two companies, but it’s also a match for me on a personal level. Being part of Vistra has enabled me to have the perfect balance of the freedom to explore other projects, such as being a startup mentor, while at the same time growing Vistra Indonesia. Entrepreneurship runs in my family. My father was an entrepreneur and so are my brothers and sisters. I believe the entrepreneurship spirit is something that a person is born with, of course it can be learned, but it’s one of those things where you have it or you don’t.
3. Reading your profile, people can easily assume that you’ve had an easy and privileged life from the beginning, globe trotting and working for amazing organizations, but there were actually some difficult times as well in between your journey, can you tell us more about the time you found yourself in hardship and had nothing but courage and faith to move forward with?
Of course! I think looking back, one of the hardest lessons I learned in life, professionally speaking, would have to be when my first company had to be closed due to the financial crisis. I mentioned it briefly before but I really didn’t see it coming. I mean I did, but it was one of those times where you are more in denial than anything else. People were telling me how the global economy was really in trouble but being young, and too optimistic, I just refused to believe it. Going back to Spain, I really had to have courage and faith to just move on. Of course, little did I know at that time, that this experience would be one of the most valuable experiences of my life. I learned so much from it and it really did prepare me for what was to come. Another thing that really kept me going was my passion for the company. And I cannot stress this enough, no matter what type of business you are in, you need to have passion for what you do. That way you will always strive to do more, to do better. It wont just be a job for you, it’s really what you love to do, what you think about first thing in the morning and the last thing before going to sleep. I guess you can tell by now that I’m also an extremely positive person. So even though everyone told me at that time to give up, I just kept seeing the silver lining and kept going.
No matter what type of business you are in, you need to have passion for what you do
4. Looking back at your experiences, it seems entrepreneurship has really been your calling, can you share with us, why instead of making another successful business venture you have chosen to add being a core mentor for Plug and Play while maintaining your current role as the Managing Director of Vistra Indonesia?
Yes, I really do feel that entrepreneurship is my calling. Although I love being a mentor, I am also currently making other businesses now that I have the opportunity and the freedom to pursue them. In addition, I truly enjoy my role at Vistra, growing the business in Indonesia. Having said that,I’ve always felt that I’ve learned so much and have achieved quite a bit, that now I am able to pay it forward and give back. Like I said I’m a very positive person and I feel that I need to contribute to make the world a better place. My position at Plug and Play is pro bono so I’m doing this because I like to see people succeed and to help them. This has always been something that I’ve believed in from the very beginning. Paying it forward and giving back. Even in my own business I’m a firm believer that if my team is succeeding, I am succeeding. Teaching and sharing knowledge has always been something that I’ve always wanted to do. When the opportunity came, I immediately said yes.
If my team is succeeding, I am succeeding
5. For someone who is currently facing the same cross roads which you faced a while back, not sure whether to stay in their safe and comfortable corporate job or to take that leap and become an entrepreneur as a startup founder or co-founder, what do you think are the most important skills for that person to have to enable him / her to have at least a fighting chance against the many startups out here?
There are many combinations of skills, characteristics and opportunities that have to be aligned for a founder to be successful, but if we’re talking about skills alone, based on my own experience, I believe that there are seven major must have skills for every founder :
The first is Ambition. A founder has to be ambitious! Of course, I’m speaking from my personal experience of having set up multiple companies. After my first company went under due to the financial crisis, I knew that that was just many of the lessons in life I had to learn. Going back to Spain was a way for me to take a minute to rethink about what my next steps would be. A founder has to always want to strive for more, for bigger and better results while at the same time continuously learning to improve his / herself and the company as well. Ambition doesn’t just mean wanting to get rich and growing the business, what I mean by ambition is also the ambition to grow and learn on a personal level as well. Even for myself, I never stop learning. Although I’m a mentor now, it doesn’t mean that I’ve stopped seeking new knowledge in formal education and also in life in general. Last year, I joined an Executive Program at Harvard University because I wanted to challenge myself to again be better. I’m also planning to obtain a PhD / Doctor of Business Administration in the near future. Be ambitious about your business, about learning and about life!
The second I would definitely say Resilience. The startup industry is just like any other business. You have to start from zero and work your way to success. I see that the challenge for many startups is that many founders and entrepreneurs don’t stick around to see it through to the end. Starting out in a business, whether it be a startup or any type of other business, you will no doubt start with a small amount of funding. And with small funding, comes the condescending looks and the challenges to be taken seriously and get your foot in the door. This is of course frustrating and is very disheartening. It can really break your spirit. But I’ve been there before and all I can say is to just focus on your goal, focus on your company and don’t pay attention to what other people say. The race is against yourself, not others. The goal is to do better today then you did yesterday.
The Third is definitely Courage, especially courage to take risks. There is no such thing as a safe business. If you want something safe, you really should just buy government bonds and call it a day. Many people think they can do business conservatively, meaning that if they play things safe, slowly but surely they will succeed. As ideal as this is, it’s not realistic. Business is all about risks. Not reckless risks but calculated risks. So make sure you have all the data, the information, then calculate your next move and the risks. And then have the courage and conviction to take that leap.
The Fourth I would have to say is Confidence and Optimism. All the three skills above I mentioned would be pretty useless if it’s not backed with confidence and optimism. I know it’s hard when you’re young and starting out. But faith and believing in yourself makes all the difference. If you don’t believe in yourself, how can you expect customers, investors, and business partners to believe in you? Confidence and optimism are like two sides of a coin, you can’t have one without the other. Believe that you can do it and always see the rainbow at the end of the rain.
The Fifth is a willingness to learn. I am definitely a living testament of this. I personally never stop learning and never will. I remember when I was at Harvard, I was surrounded by some of the smartest people I’ve ever met from all around the world. If you think you are smart, go back to school and find out just how wrong you are. For founders in the beginning of their journey, the first thing they have to learn is, well everything. When you are bootstrapping, most of the time you will be the CEO, the finance, the marketing and the sales guy. So learn quickly and learn a lot. The old saying “sink or swim” really applies here.
The Sixth I would have to say is willingness to listen to people’s advice. This was something I definitely needed more to do in my younger days. I was advised by a few people that the global situation was not doing well but I kept pushing on. Even if your business is succeeding and you feel like your on top of the world, literally on Cloud 9, just listen, listen to other entrepreneurs and business people who share similar experiences.
And last but no least is Creativity, not just in the unique selling point of your business but also in problem solving, because believe me, there will be problems and plenty of them. You also have to be creative on how to execute a project, maintain and monetize your business. These will be the three main challenges any business will face. So you have to be ambitious, creative, courageous, confident, optimistic, with a willingness to learn and to listen to other people’s advice. By having all of these combinations, you will have set yourself apart from the pack. Starting a business isn’t hard, maintaining and growing what already exists however, is a whole other conversation and where the challenges really starts.
6. What advice would you give for a new founder looking for a mentor? What type of mentor should they look for and which channels to approach? (Yes, we all know the cold pitches on LinkedIn, but give us the tea, what really works to convince someone to be our mentor?)
Well to be honest, for me and many mentors I know, the obvious answer would have to be that the founders and their startups need to be in some sort of an accelerator program such as Plug and Play. Not to say that cold pitches don’t work, it’s just realistically, having gone through accelerator programs means that the startup has a good potential of getting off the ground and soar. If a startup does make it to the accelerator program, this is by no way a guarantee of mentorship, they still have to compete against one another and depending on the accelerator program, there might also be a matchmaking process. So not only do founders chose the mentors but mentors also get to chose their mentees. Think of mentors as coaches, if you’re playing any type of sports, sure there are many athletes but to be able to get a good coach that will help you become a star, you need to have set yourself apart first. It’s only fair for both the mentor and the mentee.
7. After all the ups and down you have had in life, especially in finding your path to being an entrepreneur and mentor, if you can go back in time, to the version of you that was facing hardships and was at a very low point in your life, what would you say to that younger version of you?
I would definitely tell my younger self that “Life is a Marathon and not a sprint”. Sometimes in life we are up and the next minute we are down. So never forget that success can come and leave in a blink of an eye. Stay humble, nothing lasts forever. Most importantly as a leader, you have to be surrounded by people who are better than you. If your team is succeeding, you are succeeding. Just hang in there and never give up.
Most importantly as a leader, you have to be surrounded by people who are better than you. If your team is succeeding, you are succeeding
8. Any last messages you would like to share with us on why mentoring is important and why every entrepreneur, including founders and co-founders, needs to have a mentor?
Today’s founders are often whiz kids, what I means by that is, founders today are often very very young compared to when I and my peers founded our companies. Founders today have the vision and they for sure have the technical skills and know how, but at the end of the day, experience is hands down the best teacher. And that’s what mentors are for. After many years of ups and downs, successful and failed businesses, we have learned from the best teacher that life has to offer. Which in turns gives us extensive foresight. For mentors, now that we are in a certain chapter of our lives, we would like to give back and ensure the next generations don’t make the same mistakes we did. That is what mentorship is all about. Instead of making rookie mistakes, the way I did in the beginning of founding my first company, founders can double the speed of their growth by having the right mentors who share with them where the “pot holes” are. We also provide much needed “tough love” especially when it comes to time management and productivity. Many founders, as I’ve mentioned before are young, and sometimes they really don’t know the value of a minute, an hour or even a day. These precious hours, minutes and days, really can make a big difference and most importantly, you can’t get them back. So every minute counts! As mentors we have logged in many mileages in business and life, so we can help founders to be the best version of themselves, to make sure things happen, things grow and that there are no mistakes. For most mentors, and this is especially true for me, we really do want to give back. Life has given us such a great opportunity, gift, and success, that now in our prime, we would like to pay it forward.
Miguel, thank you so much for your time, and sharing with us your story. It truly is inspiring. Good luck with everything that you are currently doing. Your mentees are definitely in good hands!