Home Feature Story Founder Institute Singapore: Mentors Make A Difference

Founder Institute Singapore: Mentors Make A Difference

FI founders
Founders at a session of Founder Institute Singapore facing the heat from the rest of the class.

The mood in the classroom was slightly tense; the five men standing nervously in front as they endured the scrutiny of their fellow classmates. Not only were they being asked difficult questions, the honest feedback they were getting when they did answer, in many cases, can be downright depressing and ego-deflating.

Welcome to the ‘HotSeat’ – possibly the most frightening, yet the most fruitful, time at a session of Founder Institute Singapore.

The Founder Institute, the Silicon Valley-based seed-stage mentoring and incubation program, earlier this year partnered with Battle Ventures and Ascendas iAxil to bring to Singapore its first-ever Spring 2010 program for both new and seasoned entrepreneurs. Founder Institute Singapore saw some 32 people sign up for the four-month training program, exceeding the expectations of Jeffrey Paine, managing partner of Battle Ventures, who is overseeing the program.

“It is a good-sized class to have in the first program,” says Paine. “Once we demonstrate success, The Founder Institute will have more prominence in Singapore’s startup ecosystem.” Most of the people who sign up are aged around 28 to 32, and unsurprisingly, was predominantly male (there was only one female in the class). The majority of the participants come from the ICT industry, with a few having started businesses in the past, while some are currently running their own businesses, and the rest are planning to launch a new business.

Class Is In Session

A Founder Institute Singapore session is typically three hours long (there are 12 sessions in each intake), in which three to four mentors share on a particular topic at every session. The entrepreneurs – called founders whether or not they have an existing venture – are then expected to tap the insights and experience of the mentors by asking specific questions about their own ventures related to the topic in question. The sessions then end with the ‘HotSeat’, where three to five founders are called up to the front of the class where they have to pitch their ideas – and where they hear blunt, but constructive, feedback.

Steve Melhuish
Steve Melhuish, founder of local property portal PropertyGuru, sharing with FI founders on the importance of research.

The ‘HotSeat’ is not for the faint-hearted. Some founders go through the pain of having an idea that they’ve nurtured for months, sometimes even years, get torn apart by the mentors and other founders. As one founder put it, the experience was ‘humbling’. But many of them appreciate being able to hear the different views from people of different backgrounds, cultures and expertise, which helps in their ‘ideation’ process.

Aaron Kong, 30, who signed up with the idea of starting his own venture, says the experience has been refreshing. “In Singapore, startups do not often get the opportunity to interact with serial entrepreneurs through formalized programs. Having been through two sessions and several group meetings so far, I am starting to value the input, structure and network opportunities The Founder Institute presents in relation to my business ideas.”

And the sessions don’t end in the classroom. The founders are put in groups and given weekly assignments, and are expected to meet outside of classes to discuss and complete their assignments.

Quality Mentors Make The Difference

The key attraction of the The Founder Institute program, as you can imagine, is the access that founders have to experienced mentors, many of them who are serial entrepreneurs in their own right. This is the program’s greatest strength but also its greatest weakness, for the quality of the mentors dictate how much founders can learn and hence, determine its success.

Jeffrey Paine and mentors
Battle Ventures managing partner Jeffrey Paine (right) chatting with Founder Institute mentors Andy Zain of Elasitas (left) and Batara Eto, founder of mixi.jp (2nd from left).

The Singapore program has put together some excellent mentors – the day we were there we observed Steve Melhuish of local property portal PropertyGuru, Andy Zain of Indonesia-based mobile solutions provider Elasitas and Batara Eto, co-founder of Japan social networking site mixi.jp, put founders through the paces on the importance of research. But it is also clear that an experienced entrepreneur does not a mentor make – some mentors can be limited by the extent of their experiences in their own particular fields, while others simply make poor communicators. I daresay the challenge for Founder Institute Singapore is not getting founders to sign up – but to convince the best mentors to sign up and share their experiences with founders.

So far, Founder Institute Singapore has gotten off to a flying start. For the sake of the Singapore startup ecosystem, I hope it’s able to maintain its momentum.