Tips & Guidance


The benefits of peer mentoring for entrepreneurs

When you think about a mentoring relationship, usually what comes to mind is a vastly more experienced person mentoring a significantly less experienced person. But does that always have to be the case and how can value be derived from peers mentoring each other?

We wanted to know, so we gathered the following group of peer mentoring experts together for an interactive online discussion on peer mentoring and what emerged were five key ingredients to make it work.

Who our panel of experts were

  • Dan Lauer, serial entrepreneur, creator of Water Babies and Founding Executive Director of UMSL Accelerate at the University of Missouri – St.Louis.
  • Tina Chen, Imperial College London and WE Innovate alum, founder of HumaniTea and peer mentor to WuQing Hipsh.
  • WuQing Hipsh Imperial College London and WE Innovate alum, founder of WeAlign and peer mentor to Tina Chen.
  • Dr David Cliff, MD of Gedanken and one of the Entrepreneurs’ Forum’s regular and most popular mentors and winner of the Forum’s Mentor of the Year award in 2017.


1) Define what peer mentoring means for your programme


The first key ingredient to make peer mentoring work is defining what it means for your programme. David Cliff observed that you need to establish what “a peer means in the context. A range of criteria might be relevant: age, entrepreneurial career, stage of company, personal journey. You must be clear about the nature of the mentorship and what is being offered.” In other words, any one criteria, in isolation, is not enough. Entrepreneurs might be of a similar age, but have had very different journeys, one forming and exiting several startups, another having grown one business over the same time period. A deep tech entrepreneur might have raised a series A, but that wouldn’t necessarily mean they could help an entrepreneur raising a series A for a social media startup.

As such, when setting up and framing peer mentoring relationships, the criteria that fulfil being a peer (on both sides of the relationship) should be clearly defined.


2) Consider whether 1:1 or group peer mentoring best meets your programme needs


The second key ingredient to make peer mentoring work is consideration of whether 1:1 or group peer mentoring would work best. Mentoring does not have to be a 1:1 relationship. In fact, Dan Lauer described an 11:11 scenario, where 11 entrepreneurs meet on the first Tuesday of each month and gather around an activity or topic of conversation. He said they are rigid on protocols because they need to focus on getting results and they need to come away with at least one nugget of value that they can use to move their businesses forward. Without that, the group would lose cohesion and fall apart.

This can have unexpected benefits. One example he gave was of a Filipino founder bringing food each month to the group. The food was being enjoyed so much and receiving such helpful feedback that they pivoted their startup to selling the sausages they had developed and are now in 97 stores.

Whilst peer mentoring provides invaluable insight and support, there are some paths that can only be illuminated by those with significant experience and this is where 1:1 can work better. For example, Tina Chen spoke of how fortunate she was to secure a mentor, Sam, through the British Library Mentoring Programme. He has run a business for over 15 years, so can guide her through logistics of suppliers and partnerships, and even though the 6 month programme is over, they still talk regularly and he enjoys helping others succeed.

The key differentiator here is whether an individual can provide specific knowledge and guidance needed, or whether more diverse and unexpected insights might come from a group collectively. Commitment is another factor to be considered if you are bringing a group together so that all members turn up for each meeting (barring circumstances beyond their control).


3) Find a balance of commonality and differences between the peers


The third key ingredient to help make peer mentoring work is a balance of commonality and differences. Tina Chen and WuQing Hipsh are both female sole founders who studied and started their entrepreneurial journeys at Imperial College London. While Tina is a couple of years ahead of WuQing in her entrepreneurial journey, she crucially receives as much as WuQing out of their interactions. As she put it ‘we are on a similar boat, we can talk about the experiences and challenges of smaller businesses which are early stage.’ Tina also values WuQing’s design background as a valuable resource, while for WuQing, Tina provides the benefit of experience gained being further along in the entrepreneurial journey, as well as emotional support.

The key differences between them are academic and professional background, startup sector and startup stage. Striking the right balance between commonality and differences has made the relationship mutually beneficial.


4) Involve the peers in the selection process


The fourth key ingredient we found to make peer mentoring work is involving the peers in the selection process. Not only is it unlikely that you will know everything relevant about the entrepreneurs you are helping, this also helps to gain buy-in from both parties and provides a good foundation for positive relationships to develop.

Speed dating and allowing entrepreneurs to rank their preferences seems to be popular. For example, Tina and WuQing were matched through a process like this on the WE Innovate programme. Each cohort member was provided the opportunity to meet with each peer mentor (an entrepreneur who had graduated from a previous WE Innovate cohort) for 15-20 minutes, and then everyone ranked who they would most like to be paired with (choices 1, 2 and 3). Alae Ismail Innovation and Entrepreneurship Manager at Imperial Enterprise Lab says, “We then matched the teams and mentors based on their rankings and usually everyone got their first or second choice.”

5) Implement structure to create freedom and safety


The fifth key ingredient the NCME identified to make peer mentoring work is structure. Counter intuitive as it may sound, Dan articulated it well when he stated: “Structure allows you to create freedom.” The consensus among the panellists was that if you want to create strong, productive peer relationships that can take the form that works best for them, you need to lay down strong foundational structures.

David advised that “signing formal agreements is really important. Be explicit about boundaries, what is being sought, what can be provided. If you want to obtain the necessary involvement, time and psychological safety to be able to talk openly about what is needed, you need to have these discussions first and then formally agree to them.”

Dan also added “You need trust and intimacy. How do you make that happen for entrepreneurs? Part of it is that as an organisation, you should have a constitution to sign, with guidance on agendas, to get the peer mentors to a ‘level 3’ conversation right away.” He calls for a bias towards action and described the peer mentoring programme he runs, where entrepreneurs create 1-pagers, with 3-year goals. They then discuss what they need to do in the next year in order to be able to get there. They sign a 6-month peer mentoring contract and commit to a certain amount of time and money each month. That might be as little as $50 a month. The amount is not important, the intention is, as is the bias towards action and progress. Every month the peer mentors meet to discuss what went well and what did not. The aim here is to set a positive direction of travel through these structural foundations. This structure also creates a safe environment for the mentorship to take place.


Tell us how you get on


Our panel of experts shared insights to identify five key ingredients for kickstarting a peer mentoring programme. We’d love to hear how you get on with this in practice, so do keep us updated!


Authors: Victoria Nicholl and Professor Harveen Chugh, with input from Ben Mumby-Croft. An earlier version of this article was published on LinkedIn in December 2021.