Mentoring vs. Coaching

In an Interview with Christoph Räthke, Entrepreneur in Residence at Chemovator.

Being a startup founder can get challenging, especially if you are an entrepreneur for the first time. While looking for people to help you navigate the successes and failures of this journey, you might have come across mentors and coaches as a good support network. But what is the difference between both in the first place and how do you find the right one for yourself? Our EiR, Christoph, shares his insights as an expert on this topic.

How did you come in contact with the world of coaching and mentoring?

Christoph: Hosting my first accelerator program – the Founder Institute - in 2010/11 was an enormous learning for me in that respect. The program was entirely based on peer-to-peer mentoring. Before that, I had no real concept of what mentorship could mean. I assumed that it described the intellectual relationship between a student and a professor, or a very old and a much younger person. Today, mentorship seems to be everywhere – from non-commercial networks to platforms and apps, some focusing on professional, others on personal growth. That makes it hard to believe that some ten years ago, “mentoring” – at least outside the U.S. – was an alien concept, pretty much confined to early adopters close to Silicon Valley. The same, by the way, was pretty much the case for the concept of “coaching”.

What is the difference between coaching and mentoring then?

In my view, a coach is like a plumber who fixes a house owner’s leaky faucet. A mentor is a house owner himself and has lots of experience on what it takes to keep a place together in a larger sense. Like a plumber, a coach has a rate, working hours, and performs a specific act he is good at again and again. A mentor picks up the phone anytime, and his help addresses a broad spectrum of issues on strategic and tactical levels - from discussing alternative drainage solutions to handing over the number of his own favorite plumber. The last part is probably the most important. A mentor shares personal resources and experience and gives access to assets money can’t easily buy. That’s why plumbing, I mean coaching, tends to be a standardized product that can be bought from many providers, while mentoring has to be custom-tailored and rooted in trusted relationships.

What does that mean in your line of work, specifically?

Over the years, I’ve published quite some content intended to make it easier for people and organizations to benefit from digital entrepreneurship. For example, my podcast is about how and why to become a business angel – and for founders, how to work with angels. I host a monthly meetup, Christoph’s Feedback, to discuss ideas or funding in a way you can only get from an angel, not a consultant. There is the pitch method I’ve developed,, and my LinkedIn network of almost 13k. If a team looks for specialists or co-founders, I research my network. All of these are resources money can’t buy and which I’m bringing into mentoring relationships. This portfolio of experience is still growing, too, because as a business angel, I am constantly learning and pretty close to what’s happening in the startup scene.

Coming back to the difference between coaching and mentoring: if mentorship is not an off-the-shelf product, as you say, doesn’t that mean that it is much more difficult to establish?

Yes and no. There are low-level mentorship models that can generate fantastic results. Just setting up a weekly check-in with someone who is struggling to pull through with a project has proven to increase the likelihood of project success tremendously. For that, a mentor doesn’t even have to be a specialist; just listening, caring and adding structure can make a big difference. In the field of entrepreneurs and leadership, however, mentors should indeed be able to support mentees with high-value, non-obvious, experience-based and specific insight and action. I believe executives and organizations in Europe are losing out by not establishing more such relationships.

In Germany, after 25 years of digital entrepreneurship, there are thousands of experienced founders with invaluable experience and resources. Still, Chemovator is the only organization I know that has built operations deliberately on mentoring by such founders, creating a working environment for intrapreneurs and venture-builders like no other. The trick is to not just place a poster-boy founder on a corporation’s board. That is something that has been tried and not moved the needle for 20 years. Instead, you want – paid - mentorship on every layer, person to person, in flexible on-demand collaboration, not in massive, consultancy-style contracts. And I know that there are hundreds of top-level founders in Germany who are ready to work like that with peers from established organizations, be it corporations, science, or even public administration. Anyone looking for that should please reach out to me.

Last question: how do you see coaching and mentoring developing in the near future?

In startups, coaching and mentoring are essential ingredients of everyday operations. Ubiquitous peer-to-peer mentoring among founders is one of the fundamental secrets of the success of the startup phenomenon per se. And I don’t think that I know a single CEO of a fast-growing startup who doesn’t work with coaches for himself and his leadership team. As new entities are created and old ones changed, to fight climate change and pollution, profiting from the existing pool of entrepreneurial experience becomes essential. And since threats, opportunities and technology change so fast, I think every organization needs many more feelers and connectors to their environment – again, not on board-level, but on a live, week-to-week human level. I have no doubt that that’s where we’re heading.

As a startup founder, what was the biggest learning you got from a mentor? Let us know in the comments!

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Christoph's Background

Founder of Berlin Startup Academy Recognized coach, author and mentor in entrepreneurship and company building.

Christoph joined Chemovator as an Entrepreneur in Residence in 2018 and brought 20 years of experience as a founder, investor, and author in the startup scene. Pondering how to persuade BASF-employees to step forward with their ideas and their interest in entrepreneurial ways of working, he became an integral part of the Chemovator Startup Bootcamp, which we developed to make the atmosphere and methods of Chemovator tangible for everyone in BASF. Whether our participants decided to apply to Chemovator or opted for continuing their work in their company roles, the goal was providing tools that would help to innovate in any case.