All startups face the universal challenge of transforming an idea into an attractive investment. An integral part of this process, according to Tom Sperry, is finding a good mentor.
Sperry is a co-founder of Rogue Venture Partners, a local venture capital fund based in Portland, Oregon. Last summer he began providing advice and support to technical startups as a mentor through Mercy Corps' ADNI (Arab Developer Network Initiative) program.
His first mentee was a Palestinian programmer Ayman Awartani, interviewed by Global Envision in March. Ayman’s glowing review of his mentor led Global Envision to track down Tom to get his perspective on mentoring someone halfway across the world.
What initially inspired you to become a mentor?
I moved from being an entrepreneur to helping other entrepreneurs. And what I found throughout my career was that the smartest things I’ve ever done was surround myself with mentors: people with high integrity who care enough to tell me the truth. Giving back and helping others be successful to keep that cycle going is part of my DNA.
What’s the long-term value?
When you’re giving people money, you want them to be successful. But if you just give them money and you’re not there to help them build and grow their company, you might as well just burn the dough. So for us part of our investment thesis is time, treasure and talent: we’ll give you the treasure piece, but we’ll also give you our time and talent to help you grow and be successful.
What prompted you to get involved with ADNI?
When I learned about what Mercy Corps was trying to do in terms of impact and not just through direct aid, I became interested. Mercy Corps helped fund a startup that is now employing people who feel good about themselves and are leveraging that money at local businesses. If you can create that ecosystem where people are building sustainable businesses, you’re improving the livelihood of a community.
When did you first meet Ayman?
I actually began mentoring Ayman via Skype before I ever met him. We started in July 2012, and I made my first trip to the Palestinian Territories last October.
Why did you begin mentoring him?
The reality for guys like Ayman is they get trained in technical skills but have zero business skills. For example, Ayman told me he wanted to build the best game for the world and my advice to him was to ‘do real market research.’ Do you know anything about the tastes of people in Chicago, Illinois? No. Nor should you. Look at what’s going on in your backyard that no one’s focusing on and that you do know. And then you can be a huge fish in a smaller pond. Go after the Arab market because that’s what you know. A lot of my initial advice to him consisted of narrowing down his ideas and basic business ideals: be razor focused, win at home, understand your core customer, understand your pricing etc.
What was the biggest challenge in mentoring Ayman?
I was lucky enough to be mentoring someone who was thirsty for knowledge and willing to listen, make mistakes, try, learn and didn’t take feedback personally. I think some other folks I’ve run into are looking for me to give them the answers or money, and the answer to both those questions is no. I can’t answer it for you but I can help you think it through or give you a road map to help you look at your business in a different way.
Read our interview with Ayman Awartani: How a Palestinian social gaming startup is taking off