Why every aspiring startup hub needs a Mentor Connect (or something like it)

In his latest essay “Why Startup Hubs Work” Y-Combinator founder Paul Graham outlines three ways in which real startup hubs help startups fight their natural path towards failure: Environment, Chance and Numbers.

In summary he says that if you have a place with enough startups what you get is social reinforcement for the startup process. You also get an increased “chance” of running into people who can help make your startup great.

As a quick clarification, while PG speaks about running into good people on any street or any café in the Valley as an example of that “chance” I think what he’s really talking about is any environment that allows low-friction relevant interactions to take place.

In thinking about what those 3 areas I’ve realised that new startup hubs are faced with a chicken and egg problem i.e. without the social acceptance and low-friction relevant encounters, a startup hub is going to struggle to get the number of startups that can help take it to the next level and without a sufficient number of startups you’re never going to get the density of population that results in social acceptance and chance encounters.

And therein lies the secret – the aspiring startup hub that succeeds is the rare one that can grow all 3 of these areas simultaneously.

So what’s this got to do with Australia, PushStart or, more importantly, Mentor Connect?

Well, we’re already seeing an ever-increasing number of startups in Sydney and Melbourne and that has translated into more social support through all the events and co-working spaces that are popping up.

We’re also seeing a lot more mainstream media attention for startups and startup successes, which helps to validate the idea of starting your own tech startup in the broader community.

The bit that has always been missing, however, has been the low-friction, relevant interaction that can be the difference between success and failure.

Enter Mentor Connect.

Mentor Connect is a simple matching service for startups and mentors based on stage, industry and location. It’s free and there are currently over 100 mentors with various types of tech startup experience who have volunteered to be a part.

If you’re familiar with AngelList and the way it’s decoupling the funding component from the traditional VC process, then you can think of Mentor Connect as being very similar except we’re trying to decouple the advice component.

One of the great things about Mentor Connect is that it has just enough structure.

Mentors don’t HAVE to help a startup they’re matched with and startups get a selection of mentors from which they can choose none, one, a few or all to ask for help from.

No contact info is shared between startups and mentors until they choose to as the initial messaging is handled by the website messaging system.

Also, once the introduction is done we get out of the way and let nature take its course.

A perfect analogy is the coffee shop encounter – on Mentor Connect either party can choose to put their head down and keep walking, to stop and have a quick chat or to go on and exchange details if there’s a good fit.

So far we’ve done hundreds of startup / mentor matches and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Last week I had a founder offer me his “left kidney” in thanks for the help he received through Mentor Connect. Tempting, but I had to decline.

The positive feedback has been particularly rewarding as, from as far as we can tell, Mentor Connect is the first service of it’s kind anywhere in the world…so we’re kind of playing this one by ear.

To be sure, “new” or “first in the world” doesn’t necessarily mean “good”.  Ali G’s ice-cream glove is a perfect example of this

But in the case of Mentor Connect it looks like we’re onto something and it might just be because it’s a way to help smaller startup hubs address the low-friction, relevant encounter issue that is 1/3 of the startup hub challenge.

Would PG dig what we’re doing? To be honest, who knows? but it’s working, so we’re going to stick with it 🙂

Wish us luck.

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