In June of 2012 I participated in a startup forum at the Saint Petersburg International Economic
Forum in Russia. I sat on stage directly between Russian Venture Capitalists on my right and Russian startups on my left. In the audience were a variety of Russian startup companies looking to answer the question "How can I take my company global"?
At that time, my advice to the Russian startups in the audience fell into three categories:
- Connect locally with global multi-nationals to observe their process for reverse innovation. I used my company (EMC) as an example. My co-workers in Saint Petersburg built a new EMC product that was sold to global markets. There is much to learn from their experience.
- If a Russian startup wishes to export their product to a certain country or region, it makes sense to do a deep investigation on the types of problems that are being researched in those locales. One method is to regularly monitor (or visit) various global university research ecosystems. My Russian colleagues at EMC participate in a global EMC Innovation Network. As a result they have visibility to dozens of EMC research partnerships around the globe, and this knowledge can create new opportunities for them.
- If a Russian startup wishes to export their product to a certain country or region, it makes sense to uncover local government funding for innovation in those locales. For this particular point I highlighted the government-sponsored Skolkovo Innovation Centre near Moscow, and described how my company gains international insight into the Russian ecosystem by our participation.
This week I re-engaged with the Russian startup ecosystem by visiting the Ingria Business Accelerator in Saint Petersburg. I listened to some high-potential startup proposals (e.g. ResumUp) and brainstormed a bit with the CEOs and founders.
The main point of my visit, however, was to convey my opinion on a broader technique that I believe is under-leveraged in the Russian market: Startup Mentoring. They advertised my lecture on the topic (it's quite cool to see how they spell your name using the Russian alphabet).
In order to emphasize that mentoring of a startup can significantly increase innovation and thus yield competitive advantage, I took the attendees step-by-step through a personal innovation mentoring use case that I am involved with.
Here are some of the details of my personal mentoring experience with a Russian software engineer (Alexey), and how the personal experiences might map to entrepreneurs:
- My role as an EMC Fellow comes with a responsibility to share career advice with global co-workers that are following in my footsteps. Russian startups would benefit from finding a mentor that has experience guiding ideas into implementations.
- Alexey has clear goals for himself regarding personal innovation in his area of expertise, and he used those goals to find the right mentor. Startup companies should do the same.
- My guidance to Alexey over the last five months has encouraged preparation of material that can be shared with (a) global co-workers working on technologies that are similar or adjacent to his, and (b) local customers that are interested in his work. Startups should do a similar exercise.
- Alexey followed through on the preparation of this material, and I began to connect him with contacts in my global network. Thus far he has collaborated with employees in Ireland, Egypt, China, Brazil, Israel, and the United States. Perhaps the greatest insight for Russian startups is the assistance a mentor can provide in navigating networks that were previously unknown to the startup.
- As a mentor I asked Alexey to perform two activities during his global interactions: (1) sell his idea and follow up on the response, and (2) expand his network in these global locales by discovering additional contacts (these contacts are often unknown even to me as the mentor).
This last point is of particular importance; startups need to develop the skill of community management. Mentors help them establish a skeleton framework, and it is the startup's job to put "meat on the bones" of this skeleton by building and growing global communities of interest.
What did I learn at Ingria? I learned some interesting things:
- It is frustrating trying to find mentors.
- Many Russians (including my own co-workers) are not used to marketing themselves.
- Potential mentors often view the request for mentoring as a request for a life-long friendship.
- Potential mentees did not have a framework or a plan on how to approach the first meeting, how to determine if the relationship is a match, and how to assign end dates to the engagement.
Rarely do I speak to an audience with such high engagement throught a 90 minute time period. This leads me to believe it is a very relevant topic indeed.
In addition to my visit to the Ingria Business Accelerator, Alexey and I held a joint innovation seminar in front of our local co-workers. I will describe the ongoing progress of our innovation mentoring experiment in a future post.