My failure in mentoring
Joakim Achren — Jan 13, 2023 — If you’re not a subscriber, you can subscribe to the newsletter here.
It was early 2013. I had left Supercell and was putting together the founding team for Next Games. At the same time, I’d been asked by the city of Oulu to have lectures on free-to-play game development for local developers.
Oulu is a medium-sized city in northern Finland, and back in the 2010s, it had a thriving games startup scene. The local university offered education in game development, and the city had funded activities intending to create a “gaming cluster” in the city. The locals didn’t have much experience, but they had lots of passion, adequate capital, and a “let’s go” mentality. This was also when Supercell became huge, and anything seemed possible on mobile.
Here’s how my involvement happened. I’d spend a full day in Oulu. In addition to a 45-minute lecture to all the founders, I’d have mentoring sessions with individual founders.
I ended up doing two mentoring batches. First from 2013 to 2015 and then again in 2019 and 2020.
Here’s what the mentoring looked like: there would be five or six different founders that I’d meet individually for an hour.
We’d go through their situation, and I’d listen to their plans. I’d suggest different approaches as the next steps. We’d meet again in a month when I’d be back in Oulu for another full day.
Now in 2023, what were the results of my mentoring? Out of the founders that I spent time with, two have made a successful company. The rest, some thirty companies, never got far in their journey.
What could I have done differently to change the outcomes?
The entire experience was like mentoring in an incubator of companies. The city of Oulu was the facilitator of the incubator, and they’d selected companies to be a part of the incubation.
The vital ingredient missing in my mentoring was approaching the companies with the mindset of them being a bunch of companies with non-existent experience in startups and no gaming background but entirely open to feedback. But, I give them too much freedom to try things that didn’t go anywhere.
A more hands-on approach could have worked if there was not a lot of time and the mentee wasn’t experienced.
When the mentee is less experienced, the best outcomes I’ve seen come from acting like a “shadow co-founder,” where I spend lots of time pushing the founders in a specific direction and being in contact every week. I hate to say it, but micro-managing their early steps can lead to better results when a team is inexperienced.
2. “Cold shower.”
Since I didn’t take the approach of being a shadow co-founder, I could have at least shocked them up to the realities of the business they were entering.
I spent a lot of time sharing ways of working with the founders on how they should playtest their games, what KPIs to look for, etc.
I should have been more honest in my feedback about how hard things will become. Most of these companies had problems they couldn’t realize themselves. I’d show up and talk to them, and while thinking about the issues on the horizon, I couldn’t find words to describe how hard it would be.
I believe that my inability to speak was out of courtesy and obligation. I’d been hired to help these companies, not to make them feel bad about themselves.
So many of these companies were dying a slow death. Instead of telling them how slow they were at launching their game or how poor their execution was relative to the ones doing well in the gaming market, I was sharing ideas about how to test the game.
By the end of the session, the founders had ideas, and there was a mutual understanding of the improvements to be implemented.
Often, these improvements didn’t happen. People have so many things on their minds. Maybe they didn’t follow through because unknown blockers got in the way.
What I should have done was to require the founders to draft a plan on how the improvements would be implemented. Then, I’d direct them to share the plan over email. We’d then discuss the plan in future meetings, creating more checkpoints.
All this would have created immense accountability for the founders to execute the changes to take steps forward with their company.
Other ways to mentor
Here are a few other ways I’ve been working on becoming a better mentor for founders:
a. Point out the need for a sense of urgency. I would highlight the inefficiency of launching the game or not understanding the go-to-market. I’d show the areas where they lack an understanding of how hard things are or will become. They need to have a sense of urgency in solving these issues.
b. Set a date to follow up. I will follow up and check in the following week on the plan. If no plan exists, I will give two more days for the people to draft the plan.
c. Question their decisions and plans. Even though they’ve set their minds on proceeding in a certain way, launching a game when certain features were missing, I would ask, “Are you sure this is the right way? It’s your company, but I’m here to ask you these hard questions.”
d. Finally, there’s feedback. I’ve previously written about giving feedback. You can read that piece by going here.