What’s the Difference Between a Mentor and an Advisor?

I’ve been actively involved in mentoring and advising startups for the last 8 years, and while I think they are vitally important to the success of founders, I’ve observed others who I felt were abusing this privilege or position for personal gain, so I wanted to share my thoughts.

tl:dr Mentoring and Advising are very different. Mentorship is never compensated, Advisorship is often free, and Consulting is always paid. Do good things.

Since 2010, I’ve been advising and mentoring Founders, CEOs, Employees, and startups. I concurrently advise 6 CEOs (and by default, their startups too), 2 of which are compensated (equity & retainer), plus I mentor 3 founders – and I’m presently at my max. In the past, I had people to turn to if I had questions, but for the most part, I’ve had to navigate entrepreneurship alone – I have never had a real mentor myself, but I’ve made that a top priority this year.

Let’s start with a few definitions, as they relate to startups;

Mentoring is helping a founder to better themselves on a personal level. Mentoring is on the personal side and is always free

Advising is providing advice to a founder or startup to better their business. Advising is often pro-bono, sometimes compensated, but always professional.

Consulting is providing compensated advise to a founder, or their startup, on a professional level.

I feel that if we’re all able to get closer to the same definitions,  it will make our efforts more successful for Founders because, after all, that’s the main reason we’re mentoring or advising a founder/startup – not to realize a personal return.

So, if you’re going to become a mentor, you’ll need to do so knowing there is no ROI, and that being an advisor usually starts out this way too. There can be no pressure on the founder to “hire” you, or compensate you in any way. It’s 100% #GiveFirst (pro-bono) and this should be clarified and agreed upon before starting to help. This is the point where you separate mentorship from paid advice. This is not to say you can’t mentor AND advise – I do so right now with a founder in Canada – but, transparency and communication, key in any relationship, are important when mentoring or advising.  

Now, advising is pretty straightforward and there are many more experienced advisors than I, so my only advice would be is to get an agreement in place and signatures on it before you get too deep. At the very least, agree in an email to your duties and compensation, but still make sure you have paperwork within 2 weeks of that or before you start to invest serious time.

If you’re interested in becoming a mentor or advisor, find a founder you like, in an industry you enjoy, and if you can truly help them out, reach out and offer! Most founders are too shy or busy to ever ask for help – it’s up to us to take the initiative. (Alt: Techstars does a great job at identifying and matching mentors with founders. That’s how I connected with my latest mentee, Scott.)

Thanks for reading.
(Thanks, Seth)