Finding the right mentor or sponsor can be hugely helpful in building your business.
When you’re starting out as an entrepreneur, the opportunity to benefit from another founder’s experience and clout can help steer you in the right direction.
Most people are familiar with what a mentor is, but the role of a sponsor is lesser known. While there’s overlap in how each figure can support you, the purpose of a mentor and the purpose of a sponsor differ.
While entrepreneurs can benefit from both mentorships and sponsorships, deciding which type of relationship to seek out should be driven by your goals and the stage of your business.
Sponsor vs. mentor
Simply put, mentors advise their mentees, while sponsors advocate for their proteges.
In a mentoring relationship, a more experienced businessperson shares tips they’ve learned through their experience with a mentee. Mentors often connect mentees with people in their networks who could share advice and, potentially, provide opportunities.
This might look like an introduction to another founder who could give guidance on a specific business problem, or a connection to a prospective client.
In addition to sharing advice and connections, a sponsor goes the extra mile to help you succeed by leveraging their reputation — and sometimes their money — to support you and your business. This could look like investing capital into your company, introducing you to investors, or vouching for your character and work ethic.
A key part of sponsorship is advocating on your behalf, which involves purposefully connecting you with people who can help out your venture.
Prof. Herminia Ibarra of London Business School pinpoints the mentor/sponsor distinction in the Harvard Business Review: A mentor has knowledge and will share it with you, whereas a sponsor has power and will use it for you.
Difference between a mentor and sponsor
One key difference between a mentor and a sponsor is influence. A sponsor needs to have influence and connections in their industry, in order to open doors for their protege, whereas a mentor just needs to have relevant experience and advice to share.
For example, say you own a footwear startup. If you’re interested in getting funded, scaling quickly, and getting acquired, you’d benefit from a sponsor.
Your ideal sponsor might be someone who has run a footwear business in the past. This person likely knows what it takes to scale a brand, and they might be connected with VCs who could invest in your startup.
If you gain this person’s confidence and they become your sponsor, you could expect an influential voice on your side, advocating for your business when they speak to investors, industry contacts, and customers.
If you’re a new footwear brand looking to scale gradually without outside capital, you’d want to seek out a mentor. It would be ideal to find a mentor who’s built a footwear company up to the size you’re envisioning for your brand.
This person doesn’t need to have much power or influence in the industry — just experience and good advice. The mentor can share mistakes they made in the early days, and teach you how they scaled their business. You could also expect this person to help you troubleshoot business development and operational problems.
Entrepreneurs should expect a different level of support from a mentor vs. a sponsor. Here’s a rundown of what you can expect from each relationship:
- Offers business advice, coaching, support, and feedback to a mentee
- Shares knowledge on how to build a company, based on experience
- Shares ideas for how to grow a mentee’s network
- Tells stories about their entrepreneurial journey and is a sounding board for how to navigate the business
- Offers advice and support, but is also invested in the success of their protege’s venture
- Advocates for protege’s business and character — to potential investors, customers, and industry contacts
- Gives protege access to their network, making introductions to people who can help grow the business (like colleagues, investors, and customers)
- Loops protege into experiences that will help develop the business and the protege, like invite-only conferences, meetings with investors, and challenging sales calls
Why do you need a mentor, and why do you need a sponsor?
Both mentors and sponsors can provide valuable advice and opportunities. It’s likely you’ll build your business more quickly by learning from a mentor who’s been through the process, or by having a sponsor in your corner to help you make connections.
So, which one is right for you? To answer this question, it’s important to clarify your goals first.
As an entrepreneur, a mentor might be particularly helpful during the ideation phase of your business, as you’re trying to clarify your brand, product, or business goals. A good mentor can provide advice on important decisions, like when to start hiring employees, how much to spend on marketing, and whether your minimum viable product (MVP) is ready.
Based on experience, they may also dissuade you from going down a path that would have been a waste of time and money.
Even after you launch your business, you can benefit from a mentor at any time. A mentor can act as a sounding board for your new ideas and help you tackle the thorny problems as they pop up. If you’re looking for a mentor, start by clarifying your goals and what you’re looking to get out of a mentor-mentee relationship over the next 3-6 months.
A sponsor, on the other hand, is more helpful once you’ve clarified your business model, have an MVP, and need funding.
The main role of a sponsor is to amplify your business or message. If you have a product and are looking for capital, or are trying to reach a new customer base — having a sponsor who is well connected could be a boost.
When considering who could be your mentor, look for people who are in the position you’d like to be in in the next 5-10 years. Do you know anyone who fits the bill? If not, try to find a potential mentor who knows someone you know to make it easier to connect. When you’re making the pitch, be clear about why you’d like this specific person to mentor you.
Finding a sponsor is trickier. These relationships often evolve out of mentor-mentee relationships, or out of a founder’s relationship with their investor. They require trust, which can take time to build.
Your network is a good place to start looking for a sponsor. Sara Schrage, the chief people officer at Burkland Associates, recommends looking to past managers or former business school advisers. If someone you’ve worked with closely has founded a business, consider whether they’d be a good sponsor for you — or if they might know someone who could be a fit.
How many mentors should I have?
The number of mentors you need depends on your skills, business, and what you could use advice on. If you’re the founder of a skin care startup looking for funding and you’ve never started a business before, you may want to look for a mentor with experience bringing a personal care product to market, and another mentor who is skilled at pitching to investors.
Generally, it’s better to have more than one mentor because it’s unlikely one person will be able to advise you on all areas of your business. Also, relying on a handful of mentors will help ensure you’re not overburdening one person.
When asking someone to be your mentor, be upfront about how much time you’d like them to spend with you. Is it 30 minutes once a week? An hour once a month? Clarifying this piece will show you respect their time, and it’ll help them decide whether they can take on the commitment.