Mentorship can make a huge difference in the growth rate and ultimate success of a business.
When ViewStub co-founder Spencer Elliott rattles off all the mentors his company has benefitted from while going through StarterStudio’s Ideation and Seed Stage accelerator programs, it sounds like a Who’s Who of the Central Florida startup scene.
The list includes StarterStudio co-founder Greg Pollack, whose Code School made a $36 million exit and who has shown Elliott the CEO ropes. It also includes former Unilever and General Foods product developer Shan Shanbhag, who launched well-known brands including Crystal Light, Slim-Fast and Pop Rocks before dedicating his career to mentoring and advising startup founders and other businesses.
“He came up with the names for our companies with us and helped us learn more about cultivating a brand and overall just resonating with a customer, making it easy for them to understand,” Elliott said.
His list of volunteer mentors goes on.
“Louis Morales built our chat. David Whitaker has also been a good mentor to us with our software,” Elliott said. “There are numerous other ones. I could keep going.”
Mentors Create Connections
One of those other mentors, Bob Reed of Reed Scott, has taken things a step further, introducing Elliott and co-founder Patrick Van Dusen to its newest customer, the New England Society of Association Executives.
Reed said ViewStub offers trade associations a solution in the face of falling attendance at their annual meetings. By monetizing video streaming of keynotes and breakout sessions online – both live and after-the-fact – ViewStub enables associations to reach the three-quarters of their members who for one reason or another never make it to conferences in person.
“It gives you a great opportunity to lift that engagement and generate more revenue,” Reed said.
Elliott said even people who attended the conference in person can use ViewStub to watch a session they missed or recommend a session to a colleague for viewing.
“It allows the event to live on forever as well, so no longer is the event over when it’s over, but now you can sell your event for weeks after it’s done,” Elliott said. “We have events that are doing that now. They’re selling replays of the livestream.”
Elliott and VanDusen met at StarterStudio while trying to launch two separate companies that ended up merging into one, and with the help of their mentors the two co-founders have taken the company through two major pivots. Having recently completed StarterStudio’s Seed-Stage Accelerator program, ViewStub is currently in the UCF Downtown Tech Incubation program, now housed at StarterStudio.
What began as a 360-degree video production company, which Elliott admits was ahead of its time, has become a software as a service (Saas) solution for event producers of all kinds, who can increase their revenue while handing online ticket sales as well as event and merchandise marketing over to ViewStub.
One of the deals they currently have in the works could be worth millions in the sports vertical.
Mentorship is Rewarding
For Reed, serving as a mentor to companies like ViewStub has not only been personally rewarding, it has helped him up his game in his own business, where he consults with trade associations, professional societies and nonprofits.
Although he’s had wide-ranging experience in product development with Fortune 500 companies like Disney and American Express, until he began mentoring he’d never learned about tools such as the business model canvas and lean startup methods that startups employ in StarterStudio’s accelerators.
His advice to other business executives: “I would say the first thing you want to do is become a mentor and learn a lot of these tools. I could have applied these in 100 different ways in the corporate setting, absolutely,” Reed said, adding that he is now incorporating them into his work with clients.
Beyond those experiential benefits, none of the mentors at nonprofit StarterStudio receives any sort of payment for his or her time, which could be anything from a couple of hours a week for a few weeks, to ongoing conversations over months or even years.
And often those who have been mentored will return the favor. Elliott of ViewStub has mentored several companies that have come through StarterStudio.
“I think it’s important to be a mentee but also to be a mentor,” Elliott said. “Even if you can only provide some value to the person who is doing what you might have done yesterday, it’s vitally important.”
Scott Richey, a highly experienced starter, has mentored many companies through StarterStudio’s accelerator programs. As a CPA, he focuses on their financials and fundraising, which involves helping them understand how to tell their stories and mitigate risk.
“What I enjoy about it is there’s a lot of great ideas at StarterStudio, but in order for any of them to get traction they have to become more knowledgeable and more aware of what investors are seeking. Risk assessment gives you the checklist of things to go through to make sure you’re ready to have those conversations,” said Richey, who has mentored ViewStub over most of the last year.
The company just received $25,000 in seed funding from StarterStudio’s evergreen seed fund and is in talks with other seed investors now.
“These guys have become very nimble, very adept, and they are now building a management team that will allow them to move to the next level and close investment at the next level. Sophisticated investors don’t want to invest in a guy or an idea. They want to know there is a team around it and that there is some competency beyond just the visionary. So that’s where they are, and they are making great strides,” said Scott Richey.
Kill Your Darlings
For other companies, working with mentors might lead them to the conclusion that they are better off abandoning their idea.
That was the conclusion Matt Dupree made after setting out to build a company to teach people to build mobile apps. Even though Dupree ended up shelving his startup, University Android, an encounter he had with UniKey CEO Phil Dumas at a StarterStudio event led him to the career he has now as mobile lead for Dumas’ company, which offers mobile key platforms and solutions.
“Phil kind of sold me on continuing the mentor relationship even though I was working at UniKey,” Dupree said.
In fact, Dumas continues to mentor Dupree and to encourage him to develop his own business ideas.
“This is the essence of the ecosystem, which StarterStudio is a vital part of here in Central Florida,” said StarterStudio Interim Executive Director Lilian Myers. “These gifts of mentorship, from one human to another,have value that can’t be measured. This is a big part of the way StarterStudio grows people who grow companies. The gifts of time, talent, and know-how are cherished in just the same way as the generous contribution of dollars that enable our programming.”