Eric Ashman – Why I Mentor

When I first met Eric Ashman, I was immediately impressed by his resume.  He is currently President of fashion retailer M.M.LaFleur, and previously served as President of Group Nine Media, President and CFO of Thrillist and JackThreads, CFO of Huffington Post and Advisor to Lerer Hippeau.

As I got to know Eric Ashman a little more, I became even more impressed by his passion for helping founders and executive teams realize their vision and succeed, especially during challenging times.  

As the world slowly reemerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, Eric’s insights are more valuable than ever before, but our conversation today was focused on another topic very close to his heart.  Eric has been volunteering for several years with Entrepreneurship for All (EforAll), a nonprofit organization that partners with communities nationwide to help under-represented individuals successfully start and grow a business through intensive business training, mentorship, and an extended professional support network. 

In a recent conversation, Eric Ashman shared the value of mentoring, and how providing insight based on experience can be transformative for both people. In his own words…

“One of the most common mistakes a founder can make as they build their startup is to choose to invest too much time and money on the wrong tactic. Software projects that suffer from scope creep. Initial product development that goes well beyond the MVP.  Marketing programs that don’t deliver the necessary ROI.”

“I was reminded of this lesson by an amazing first-time founder i was mentoring in a recent cohort of EforAll in Roxbury, MA. Her company already had revenue, repeat customers, and a growing organic marketing channel that was quickly overwhelming her with demand she couldn’t meet. Specially, she was taking orders by email and phone, a slow, time consuming process that led to errors and slow payment from her customers.” 

“At EforAll, we encourage our entrepreneurs to set SMART goals for the cohort. This founder that I was mentoring was focused on addressing the challenge of keeping up with order volume with her very manual process. She decided that one of her SMART goals would be to launch an online store to increase the number of orders she could take each week.” 

“At this point, I should note that I teach am EforAll workshop on setting SMART goals. I’m a big believer in the importance of setting SMART goals, and picking the right KPI’s to measure progress. Within that workshop, one of the key concepts that I teach is the difference between goals and tactics.”   

“Which means that I should have instantly recognized that launching an online store was a tactic, not a goal. But I didn’t. Because I’m as susceptible as anyone else to falling into the trap of setting the wrong goals. Which is one of the primary reasons founders end up investing too much time and money on the wrong tactics. In the excitement of goal setting for a rapidly growing startup, I got caught up in the founder’s vision of higher orders and growing sales, and I failed to counsel her on making the adjustment.”

“And so we lost weeks as she tried to learn how to set up a web store. Regardless of how much easier it is to set up a web site today, for a nontechnical founder, the challenge can still be quite daunting. She was on the verge of hiring someone to build her website. Precious time and capital would be deployed.” 

“And then, without any prompting from their ‘experienced’ mentors, the entrepreneur realized that setting up the web store wasn’t the goal. The goal was to automate the order taking process so that they could accept more orders. And they could accomplish that goal by setting up a simple Google Form. For free. In a few hours.” 

“And that’s exactly what they did. They shared the new form with us in our next weekly meeting, and by the next week, they had doubled the number of orders they could process. This freed up time for creating new products, opening discussions for retail distribution, and a little empty space to recharge their batteries during the week.”

“It was such a powerful lesson for me. I brought that lesson back to my team at the company I lead, and started reviewing our goals to ensure they weren’t confused with tactics that might misdirect resources.”

“And it reminded me once again as to why I love mentoring EforAll entrepreneurs, and being a part of the advisory board that is helping EforAll make an even greater impact within the Boston community.”

“Mentoring allows me to live my commitment to a Give First philosophy. Give without any expectation of getting back. There is the wide disparity of income and wealth across the country. In Boston, this disparity is particularly glaring. The household median net worth of a white family in the city Boston is $250,000. For a black family in the city of Boston, that number falls to $8.”

“Entrepreneurship is a powerful tool in the fight to close the economic wealth gap. Entrepreneurship isn’t just about trying to build billion-dollar unicorns in Silicon Valley. It’s about building shops in neighborhoods, creating products and solutions for your community. Building businesses that can span generations, and wealth and ownership for families. Entrepreneurship isn’t an easy path. But it’s a powerful path.”

“But here’s the secret. While the Give First philosophy means I’m not expecting anything back, mentoring pays back over and over again. Mentoring makes me a better startup leader and advisor. As the story above illustrates, working with first time founders at the very beginning of their journey helps me refocus on first principles of entrepreneurship that I apply every day.”

“Discovering the impact that mentorship has had on myself, as well as the entrepreneurs I have been privileged to work with, has been one of the great unlocks in my life.”