I enjoyed sharing why mentoring is so important, addressing the concerns of poaching and confidentiality when mentoring is applied across many companies. Stay tuned as I also share what I am learning now, and the coming challenges for Engage Mentoring.
Read the transcript below or listen to the full podcast HERE.
Topics in this episode
Measuring the success of a mentoring relationship
Employee engagement and retention
What differentiates Engage Mentoring from other mentor solutions
The hurdle of explaining the external mentoring process
Being part of a company’s mentoring strategy, without being the exclusive provider
The challenge of scaling
Learning from veterans in the tech field
Mike Kelly: Welcome to the Start-up Competitors Podcast, today we have Alison Martin, who’s the founder and CEO of Engage Mentoring. Alison, welcome.
Alison Martin: Thanks so much, Mike.
Mike Kelly: Why don’t we start with a quick pitch for Engage Mentoring and what you do?
Alison Martin: Sure. The Engage Mentoring Program is a plug and play software that enables workplace mentoring to be made easy for companies of all sizes. It takes the guesswork out of implementing a mentoring program. A lot of times you just look for software, but then you still got to start from scratch to recruit mentors and train them, and this just makes it easy because there’s an existing database that allows your participants to access mentors both inside and outside of the company. You can enable cross company mentoring as well, which is a really nice feature for some of the companies that are probably looking for that external perspective.
Mike Kelly: And make that a little bit more tangible. Let’s go maybe into the user experience a little bit. What does it look like if I’m a mentor? And then what does it look like if I’m a mentee?
Alison Martin: If you’re a mentor, you basically create a profile where you indicate your topics that you would be willing to share with others on the basis of your experience. So there’s a training that helps the mentors understand how to have those conversations, and then they create a profile where they identify topics that they will be willing to share with others. As a mentor, you get the opportunity to indicate what topics you would be willing to share with others. As a mentee, the good news is you actually get to self direct your match on the basis of topics you want to learn more about. If I am thinking about my career, and I work in an organization and I say I really want to be a senior vice president in five years, I think about what competencies or soft skills I would like to develop as part of that process. And then also think about the topics are soft skills I’d like to develop now and begin to select mentors on the basis of those particular topics. And the mentor selection would enable me to connect both with mentors inside my company, as well as externally through the Engage Mentoring Program.
Mike Kelly: Got it? And then for the company, is there another user experience? Like if I’m a company admin, what does that look like?
Alison Martin: Great question. That’s one of the harder things about implementing mentoring programs is really the measurement aspect. And that’s the value that we really bring both in terms of the admin access to the software which is the quantitative perspective on how many hours of mentoring have taken place, who’s connected to whom, what topics are my employees choosing, and those types of data points.
In addition to that we collect feedback that it’s more subjective and quality in terms of how those experiences are being received and how well those conversations are going and how well people feel like they’re moving the need on and developing in those particular areas. And then on an annual basis, we also do what’s called a people first assessment. We’re really measuring how we’re working alongside an employer in terms of helping them increase their employee engagement and retention. And that’s really the value that we bring because this program was developed out of years of experience and implementing these programs for larger companies. And we’ve been able to kind of distil all the things that worked about those endeavours into a program that is so easy to administer, and allows for companies of all sizes to offer workplace mentoring and be able to measure it and see the actual results. So that’s the really exciting piece about these particular products.
Mike Kelly: Awesome, hit me with some current status for the business. That can be any sort of vanity metric you want to share, could be customers, employees, number of mentoring sessions that have taken place, paint a picture for somebody who’s listening as to where you’re at?
Alison Martin: Yeah, absolutely. I think giving a little bit of the Backstory of how this came to fruition is a little helpful. In that we started basically built a mentoring software tool that we’re using in our consulting firm where again, we’re historically working with large clients that either they were a global company looking for something that was scalable, or a non-profit association or university and helping them construct their program from scratch. And out of that learning, we realized two things, one; it was really daunting for even the biggest companies with a ton of resources to start a program from scratch. And two is that we wanted something that would be scalable for companies of all sizes to be able to access and that’s what led to the development of Engage Mentoring, which is only been around for about a year, year and a half. And in that time, that’s a wide range. I’m sorry; it’s been around for about a year and three months. And so, in that time, we have had 19, companies of all sizes pilot the program, and we’ve had a 90% renewal rate on those companies. We have about 1200 users right now that are part of that network. Again, this is a program that enables cross company mentoring. It’s great to see that traction. In addition to that we have also partnered with some nonprofits and higher Ed institutions to enable students to access the program. And that’s gone very well also, in terms of the growth in that category, I think. I know that we offer the program to 500 students in particular in the state of Indiana, and that’s continuing to grow and we’re getting interest there also. Those are some of the numbers that we’ve seen so far and the feedback has been fantastic. And in researching, any other firms are doing it quite like the way that we’re doing it and we’re really feeling good about the results that we’re seeing so far.
Mike Kelly: That’s awesome. When you think of competitors for Engage Mentoring, who or what comes to mind?
Alison Martin: The first thing people think of if they want a mentoring program is they want mentoring software. They’ll go out and they’ll Google mentoring software. And there are many different options that exist. That could be a good first step, but in doing that, you would start the program from scratch. And as we all know, software itself doesn’t run the program. So the engagement strategy, the measurement, the training, and all those things would still need to be addressed. In our research, there are some companies that do offer it sort of that extra mentoring piece. They’re not quite as cost effective as what we’re willing to or able to do the program at. I’m not, I don’t have firsthand knowledge of sort of how effective they are, but there are some companies out there that will also enable external mentoring. And the benefit of that iis again not having to start a program from scratch and having it be more of a plug and play versus investing first in the software and then figuring out how to get people to use it.
Mike Kelly: Interesting, in that kind of a crowded space when you’re trying to cut through the noise, talk to me a little bit about what your sales process looks like. Specifically, are you being brought in and when you’re talking to somebody, do you have to differentiate against a whole bunch of other people in the space? And so like they think they’re talking to you about one thing and you end up in their eyes and they’re talking about something else? Or is it not like that at all?
Alison Martin: Actually, that happens a lot. And so our first hurdle is kind of getting in the door. And the reason I say that is because even with the aid of software mentoring, offering mentoring programs to your employees, sounds like a lot of work.
If we’re able to get in and first and foremost understand what the key drivers are for the business and what they’re currently doing to develop their employees, or what they’re not doing, being able to explain a little bit at a high level of how easy the implementation of this is, and also how effective it is, is how we’re differentiating ourselves in the marketplace by kind of painting the picture of what external mentoring really looks like. Again, I think our biggest competition is just a mentoring software, which again, there’s a lot of them out there. But we don’t typically find that employers who are saying, “Oh my gosh, I need a mentoring program yesterday, please help me.” It’s more educating them on what this can do to really engage and grow and develop and create a culture within their organization that’s just inspiring and helps them in the whole endeavour of attracting, retaining and developing talent. Getting them kind of bought into that and then showing them how easy this is to implement is really our strategy. It’s been on the basis of referrals and actually a lot of referrals from our existing clients. What’s beautiful about this too is, our clients want to see more companies sign on, because it gives their employees more opportunities to network as well. That’s been a huge source of kind of driving the number of companies that we have so far has been largely on the basis of referrals like that too.
Mike Kelly: Interesting. Do you know of anybody else out there that has that kind of cross company component in the way that you guys have it?
Alison Martin: Yeah, like I said, there’s a couple others. One service that I know of is from the way that I’ve understood it is they will take your emerging leader, and they have a database of really high level people from companies across the country, where instead of going out and paying for an executive level coach, they’ll pair you with a mentor company and it’s at a significant cost and last time I checked it was in the range of $10,000 per person. It’s more of like executive coaching type of costs, but doing it with executive mentors. And then there’s another that is a little bit more not $10,000 a person, but it’s about $150 per user per month, where they are affording some sort of cross mentoring application. But I think, again, they’re doing the match in a more traditional fashion versus allowing the employee to make those matches on the basis of topics. Nothing that’s done quite the way that we we’ve done it, but we’ve been doing the process of mentoring, even in the form that Engage Mentoring offers within companies for about eight years now. And so we’ve learned a lot in that process about how to keep people engaged, how to give them context around approaching those conversations and those types of things. And so from that have developed this cross company mentoring concept that’s been very well received so far and we’re really enjoying and seeing the traction that it provides and also just again, the ease of administration of our clients, which I think is the biggest key.
Mike Kelly: Do you have any formal ways that you track competitors in the space or new possible new competitors that come online in any given quarter?
Alison Martin: I think the short answer is we haven’t historically, we’re getting a little bit better about that just because of recent needs too. I think sometimes you have an idea and you just go and you do. And then once you do it, you turn around and look around and see what else is in this space? We hear of different programs and different things. I think a lot of times too, I will say this, people hear the word mentoring, and they think everything is just, “Oh, oh, you’re just like that one mentoring program.” There’s a lot of different programs that are out there that have different purposes, whether it’s a non-profit mentoring program, or some other type of mentoring initiative. We’re doing a better job right now of researching competitors, but historically, we’ve just been kind of putting our head down and trying to figure out what works and kind of getting feedback from our clients and continuing to modify and develop and build the program.
Mike Kelly: This just kind of interesting because I can imagine you could very easily be working with companies big enough that they have a couple of different solutions in this space, are you ever in a Bake Off against some of those not in the sales cycle, but actually inside the company? Like, I can imagine a client who’s using your software, potentially somebody else’s software for another aspect of mentoring and then potentially, like, kind of like a formal program in their community, not even something that software based like, do you find yourself in any situations like that? And if you are, how does that turn out? Or what are your experiences there?
Alison Martin: We do and actually, if someone’s looking purely at wanting to create a mentoring program within their company, a lot of times they have very distinct ideas around which departments would have access and who would have access to whom within that hierarchy.
In other words, I don’t want somebody who’s an individual contributor having access to the CEO. So they really want things, applications that are built out in such a way that has that type of ability to kind of customize within the program, who’s visible to whom. And that’s not the intangible, or why we built our software the way that we did. That comes up a lot. And actually, sometimes they’re looking for something that is so customized that we would say, and there are other really great software tools out there that would be better suited for what they’re looking for. And for us, we’ve really kind of built our program around this idea of not being able to replicate what we have in that allowing employees to opt into a program on an annual basis that also allows for external mentoring is a different experience. It’s also a different strategy. And we recommend that companies do both if they can, if they’re big enough, and they have the capacity to have both that sort of internal program that really builds in the cultural nuances and very specific topics to that industry or that company, it makes a lot of sense.
Ours makes a lot of sense on the soft skill side and being able to connect externally, which is something that they really would have not been able to replicate. The short answer is yes, that happens all the time we come up against companies that are using other software’s for different applications, we fully support that because you guys like the best tool for what you’re trying to accomplish.
Mike Kelly: I can’t believe the series of questions just occurred to me this late in the conversation, but I’m going to run down what must I have to imagine? It must be frequently asked questions for you in the sales cycle? I’m certain you must have clients or prospects who say, “But if I use your software, and my employees are talking to leaders at other companies, they’re going to get poached by these other companies, or do I have to worry about confidentiality across companies?” How do you how do you address those concerns?
Alison Martin: I actually love that question because it kind of helps. And it’s always something that we try to address, but at the same time, if they’re thinking it, that could be the objection that would stop them from moving forward if they’re that concerned. A couple of things related to that, it was obviously that the user agreements and the confidentiality that they kind of agreed to as part of the program. But having said that, yes, it does exist that they could potentially connect as a mentor outside of the organization, and form a relationship that leads to some sort of a job offer. We do have agreements in place that say that that’s not supposed to happen. And I can authentically tell you, Mike, I know of not one single instance so far where that has happened. However, tools out there exists like LinkedIn, and other tools where if an employee is looking, they are going to come across those opportunities, and that will be the case and so, if we’re talking to an employer, they’re considering, “Oh my gosh, if I invest in these employees, what if they connect to someone and they leave us?” It’s kind of like the whole, “Oh my gosh, what have we develop our employees and they leave us. Okay, well, what if we don’t and they stay?” We just kind of talk through those concerns and yes, there are things in place and yes, this is not intended at all to be a tool for recruiting, but in the instance that that happens, we would have to believe that that would have happened anyway with other all the other available networking tools that exist out there.
Mike Kelly: Got it. Awesome. Do you have any Engage Mentoring swag that you hand out, like the Engage Mentoring T-shirt or something that happens to like your gold medal mentors or anything like that?
Alison Martin: Not yet, but we need some. We had some diverse talent strategy swag, but we haven’t made it down the list of swag yet, so I need to get some.
Mike Kelly: Well, I have a deal for you because locally, we have Fuel Merchandise Group. You can find them at fuelmerchandise.com and they can help you with your start-up company swag. And if you mentioned Start-up Competitors, you’ll get a 10% discount on your first order.
Alison Martin: Very good. I will definitely check that out. What did you say? Mention what?
Mike Kelly: Start-up competitors. Do you feel like you have product market fit?
Alison Martin: I do. And here’s why. There are a lot of people who would say that we have a crisis, a leadership crisis. And so things that are contributing to that are the fact that we’re moving at such a fast pace and we’re also in an incredibly tight talent market where we have more available jobs than we have people to fill them. So what’s happening is people are being promoted into roles, perhaps earlier then would have normally happen without giving a whole lot of context or a whole lot of training in that regard. And then you’ve also got the generational factor of millennials and Gen Z and the generation that’s coming up behind them moving into a workplace that have different motivations and different ideals around what makes an employer a place that they want to stay.
And then just the sheer having multi-generations in the workforce where succession planning and knowledge transfer really needs to occur. You factor all those things into it and also take into consideration that as high as 73% of employees across the board are not engaged with the employer. And you’ve got a real leadership crisis in most employers, and so what they do is they try different things and sort of one size fits all approaches for their employees, and which may include trainings and in some cases, very expensive executive coaching and those types of things. And mentoring is something that is easy to administer, it allows employees to self direct their own sort of learning channels, it gives them the developmental, it meets the needs that they’re really hungry for in terms of that perspective and that safe place to reflect. And it also really changes the culture in a profound way that enables people, and we have a client that the CEO, it’s about 300 person credit union that we’ve been working with for some time.
And what he’ll say is what this is done for the organization as he sees people raising their hands at meetings or taking on more responsibility. So I’m sorry to make this long winded answer on product market, but it’s so timely because this is so needed. And historically, especially in HR worlds that are again, understaffed and over committed, trying to build something like this from scratch is so daunting. We’re really excited given all of the things that I just shared around this being such a huge opportunity, I think for workplaces to really be intentional about how they’re building their culture and doing so in a such a way that creates stickiness and also enables people to develop to their full potential.
Mike Kelly: I think you’ve just done a pretty phenomenal job of articulating some of the trends that are in your space and how you think your solution is uniquely positioned to capture some of that. I would also be interested, do you have thoughts from a technology perspective? Are there trends out there just from a tech perspective that you also think you could be well positioned for whether that’s now or in coming years? Like, is there anything in the way that you think people will engage digitally in the future that could make this platform more powerful that you’re excited about? Or it’s more about just facilitating those connections and letting the people figure out the best way to do that?
Alison Martin: I don’t know that we’ve figured out what the future looks like. I mean, right now, we’re really focused on getting people to use it and engage in such a way that they are creating meaning and also sharing their feedback with us. I think for us, it’s kind of finding even more data that we can kind of get from this in terms of how impactful mentoring can be, those are the things on the immediate horizon, I don’t know exactly what the future holds and where there might be some other opportunities for this to continue to evolve. It’s just too hard for me to conceptualize right now. But I’m certain that those things exist. And we’re continually getting feedback from our clients and our customers around those types of things and trying to keep up as fast as we can on development of what that looks like and what service we’re providing to our clients.
Mike Kelly: If I gave you $500,000 right now to spend, where do you think you would spend it?
Alison Martin: Gosh, well, mainly if you’re talking about on the development side or you’re talking about how it’s funded in general?
Mike Kelly: In general, you can spend it on development. You could spend it on sales and marketing, totally appeal.
Alison Martin: It would be sales and marketing. We’re at a point where kind of reaching a fever pitch is kind of the current staffing structure that we have which is very small, and needing to build that out. And so that’s what we’re actually going to looking at right now is what that could possibly look like. It’s primarily sales and marketing. On the marketing side, I think, doing a better job of targeting. I mean, up until now it’s been our existing clients going to them, getting referrals and that’s how we’ve sort of grown organically. So I think being really clear about the channels that we’re pursuing and how to really effectively pursue them and start to get people inbound leads versus us doing outbound. And then sales on the back end, I’ve been doing the majority of the sales that we’ve had thus far. And so making sure that we have people in place who can sell it effectively without the need for me to be involved in that discussion. I’ve been doing this for eight years and have been positioned sort of as a mentoring expert. And so our biggest thing right now is sales and marketing and really creating a more scalable model than what we’ve had thus far.
Mike Kelly: I don’t often get an opportunity to reference some past guests on the show and I’m totally blanking on what episode he was on but I want to say it might even been in year one, so this was a while ago, but there’s a company here in town called Warm-up. I think it’s sendwarmup.com that is a platform specifically focused on how to best leverage your referral sources to maximize deal flow. And I only bring that up because I think you might be the first person who’s actually said referral sources is one of your primary sources for deal flow. Might be something worth looking out for and I’ll make sure we drop that episode in the show notes. So it’s easy to find and if you want an intro to my colleague who’s the founder of that company, I’d be happy to make it. That could be a good fit.
Alison Martin: That sounds cool. I’ll definitely check that out. That sounds really great. Thank you.
Mike Kelly: Okay, what’s the biggest challenge you face today in launching this business?
Alison Martin: There’s so many. The biggest challenge I faced today. So multiple things I would say, one is that the original conceptualization of the technology was sort of a, we need a match.com, for mentors that would have a scheduling component. And that has evolved so significantly. So I think keeping up with the user feedback and in terms of development and staying in front and making sure that the technology is working as it should, and that we’re getting the engagement of the users who are who are using the software has been a continuous exercise that will only continue to be refined, of course, and so you never are quite there. We can always increase that. But I think those have been the biggest challenge because we talked about building a business based on software and humans. And between those two, those two applications, things can go wrong. A mentor could not show up for a mentoring session or vice versa. And I think rising to make sure that we’re addressing those things and that we’re responsive in a timely manner and meeting our customer expectations has been a challenge. But we’ve learned how to make sure that we’re authentic about the expectation that that could happen in the beginning and what we do to address it and that we’re consistent and how we respond. I think those have been the greatest challenges, is both on the technology and then also the human side and making sure that people are doing what they say they’re going to do as they should, in that part of our product delivery is really reliant upon the human interaction that it facilitates.
Mike Kelly: I think I know the answer to this, but I’ll ask it, selenium the witness a little bit but have you had a chance to do much AB testing around that human side of things like in the software to say if we put this language in the invite, it’s 2% more likely to convert on a connection versus if we put this language in the invite, have you done any of that kind of like just rapid fire AB testing across different parameters in the software?
Alison Martin: We have not, no.
Mike Kelly: That’s okay. That would be fascinating.
Alison Martin: It would be fascinating actually.
Mike Kelly: What do you think your next big challenge is for this business?
Alison Martin: I mean, definitely figuring out scaling and building out the right team. That’s our next big endeavour. And making sure we have the right funding aligned with that, and then determining which markets to really go after. We’ve got a kind of roadmap of where we want to be by the end of the year, and a pretty solid plan on how we’re going to get there. And assuming we hit that target, we’ll be well positioned to kind of take things to the next level and figure out the rest of it. We’re trying to be laser focused on that right now and then it’s going to be really scaling and how do we do that nationally, in addition to what we have in our backyard.
Mike Kelly: Nice. What are you learning right now? That could be in the business personally for fun, hobby? Like, what’s the thing that has you excited and you’re spending time trying to get up to speed in that topic.
Alison Martin: I’m learning every day. Just recently, as you referenced earlier, just made the transition out of the consulting firm and now the CEO of the software firm, and so with that, I am meeting as many people as I can who are veterans of the technology field just to understand what their path was, how they got to where they were, seeking out advice, and it’s really been incredible. Mike, you’ve been huge in that. I had a chance to talk to you a couple of times and you’ve pointed me and connected me to some other great people, but that’s what I’m learning. I feel like every day I have either a new direction, new idea or new contact that’s helping to make the path forward clearer. And that is been my primary focus right now. Hobby wise and other things, just outside of work, I have a daughter who is about to go into college in the fall.
And so I’m spending as much time with her as I possibly can when I’m outside of work hours to make sure I’m just maximizing what little time we have left. So between those two things, those are my primary focuses right now.
Mike Kelly: That’s awesome. Good answer. If people would like to get a hold of you, or if they’d like to learn more about Engage Mentoring, what’s the best way for them to do that?
Alison Martin: Sure, they can check out our website is engagementoring.com just as it sounds, it’s spelled that way. And then my email is firstname.lastname@example.org and it can also be found on LinkedIn under Alison Martin.
Mike Kelly: Awesome. Thank you so much.
Alison Martin: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity.