Among my recent experiments with grooming young talent has been a year-long effort at mentoring entrepreneurs using various distance learning tools and technologies that are now gaining maturity and becoming quite effective.
I started writing my blog in April 2005. Soon after, as I developed a readership in the technology entrepreneurship community, I started getting requests from all over the world to mentor entrepreneurs launching their first start-ups. Since then, I have been looking for a scalable way to address the growing number of requests that come from everywhere--Ireland to Brazil--so that I can continue to encourage this creative energy, but at the same time, not drive myself crazy!
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The idea for a solution came to me awhile back.
In summer 2006, as the technology industry resurfaced from the nuclear winter that followed the dot-com meltdown, I was invited to speak at a start-up workshop. My session was supposed to focus on positioning your business. At a Silicon Valley law firm, some 60 entrepreneurs packed a conference room to listen to me. I asked each to pitch his business idea in one minute, and then I gave feedback for another minute or two. My 90-minute, rapid-fire session, alas, was not enough to accommodate all the pitches.
In the lobby, even as we spilled onto the front steps, I tried to respond to more entrepreneurs, but it was hardly satisfactory. In fact, it has always frustrated me to realize that I did not have enough time in my day to stop for each entrepreneur who asked for guidance. Friends--seasoned entrepreneurs--have expressed the same frustration.
A few months later, I repeated the same exercise in a roundtable format at the same law firm with 20 entrepreneurs, spending a bit more time with each. Once again, it was a dynamic session, and I felt that people learned from one another, not just from me. It was as if we were together going over a set of case studies, brainstorming about how to take each venture forward.
Two years later, in fall 2008, as I launched the first book in my Entrepreneur Journeys series, I decided that it was time to take this experiment online so entrepreneurs from around the world could benefit.
As happens in all entrepreneurial experiments, one thing led to another. D.D. Ganguly, CEO of DimDim, an online conferencing technology vendor, offered to host my mentoring roundtables on its technology for free, and off we went. The first free roundtable was held last November. We asked five entrepreneurs to pitch and I interacted with each while over a hundred others listened. Attendees spanned the globe, time zone challenges notwithstanding.
In spring 2009, we repeated 10 more roundtables, catering to a few thousand listeners. Each time, five entrepreneurs pitched. To some I recall having to say that per my assessment, it would be better not to pursue the business idea they pitched. I could feel the disappointment in their voices as they thanked me for my feedback. But what is the point of wasting years of your life chasing windmills?
Last week, I received an e-mail from Sumit Anand, founder CEO of Kreeo, a collective intelligence platform provider. "You may not remember, I had participated in your first strategy round-table with ReadWriteWeb on DimDim," Anand wrote. "Your advice has been very helpful and today we have a good number of enterprise customers for Kreeo and are on our way to self reliance. We shall be cash flow positive this year and can continue to grow without funding." I smiled. The funding bottleneck has always been a discussion item, as I have relentlessly encouraged entrepreneurs to bootstrap. Anand, it appears, listened.
This fall, we are kicking off the roundtables with one sponsored by Cisco ( CSCO - news - people ), using its immersive telepresence technology. On Sept. 15, entrepreneurs will gather in telepresence rooms in eight cities: Santa Clara, Boston, London, Bangalore, Gurgaon, Mumbai, Chennai and Hyderabad. They will pitch their ideas over video conference and I will try to help them with their strategy challenges.
And throughout the fall, there will be additional free DimDim roundtables twice a month, each with a 1,000-attendee capacity. You can register for them here. (All the recordings are also available here.)
What I am learning from this experiment is that content matters far more than presence. While it would be impossible for me to meet each of these entrepreneurs personally and advise them individually for free, it is quite effective to use the distance learning platforms like DimDim and telepresence.
Many entrepreneurship development organizations including TiE, Endeavor and Kauffman are looking for ways to provide remote mentoring to their constituencies. The entrepreneurial energy in places like India, China, Singapore, Israel and even Europe is growing in intensity. Silicon Valley has the most fantastic repository of experience, tribal knowledge and potential mentors. Over the next decade, it is our responsibility not only to groom the Valley talent, but also the talent base elsewhere in the world.
Sramana Mitra is a technology entrepreneur and strategy consultant in Silicon Valley. She has founded three companies and writes a business blog, Sramana Mitra on Strategy. She has a master's degree in electrical engineering and computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her three books,Entrepreneur Journeys, Bootstrapping, Weapon Of Mass Reconstruction, and Positioning: How To Test, Validate, and Bring Your Idea To Market are all available from Amazon.