Braintrust: a format for powerful peer-to-peer mentoring
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For three years in a row, the most valued session during the Rockstart Accelerator programs has been the Braintrust. Esther introduced it as Lean Mentor checkins, based on Salim Virani‘s Braintrust model, but it has slowly evolved in much more and is now a standard part of our proven Lean Startup curriculum.
What is a Braintrust?
The concept is really simple. You take 5 founders from 5 startups, put them together in a room on a weekly basis for max 1 hour and ask them the following three questions:
- How was last week
- What is your plan for next week
- How can we, as a group, help you?
The last question is by far the most important one. We as organisers are more glorified timers than we are mentors, because the whole goal of the braintrust is peer-to-peer mentoring. Founders helping each other with a variety of issues and questions. Ranging from intro’s, experiences with VC’s, How did you do X to even talking about trouble between founders.
Especially because of that last point it is important that Braintrust sessions are confidential.
What happens in Braintrust, stays in Braintrust.Esther Gons – author The Corporate Startup
There has to be trust in Braintrust and it is therefor important that the group stays the same over a longer period of time. We ask founders who can not come to cancel and not send a replacement. We learned that a stranger in the group completely flattens the questions and conversation, simply because there is not yet the same level of trust.
How to organise a Braintrust?
You’d need a maximum of 5 founders from different startups. If you have more people it is wise to split up the group. We would also advice to not have founders from the same startup, so the founders can really speak there mind. Not even so they can badmouth their co-founders, but talking about the things they really struggle with, but are not (yet) comfortable with discussing with their co-founders.
Try to keep the Braintrust within the hour, so it is possible for everyone to join every week. Everyone should be able to spare 1 hour a week, but the moment the Braintrust sessions tend to take longer than expected, people start dropping out. We usually plan the sessions on a Friday afternoon, so we can drink a beer and reflect upon the week. As the organizer, it is perfectly fine to join the Braintrust yourself, as long as you keep an eye on the time and equally divide it by the number of founders.
Give it a few weeks. Don’t give up after the first session if the Braintrust feels awkward. We normally see real value coming out of a Braintrust after 3 to 4 weeks, when the founders are starting to really trust each other.
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Timan Rebel has over 20 years of experience as a startup founder and helps both independent and corporate startups find product/market fit. He has coached over 250+ startups in the past 12 years and is an expert in Lean Innovation and experiment design.