On a typically grey and wet Day in Amsterdam, we arrive at the brand new Mentorjam office and are greeted by bursts of colour from every angle. Vibrant paintings depicting animals of the African savannah, a vintage surfboard leaning against a wall (we’re told it will hang pride of place above the desks soon), more artwork from all over the world — most not yet in their final positions
The Mentorjam team have just moved into their new office on the Vijzelgracht. Co-founder, Estelle gives us a quick tour and explains the grand vision for their new space. It feels like the beginning of something pretty special, and the energy levels from her and co-founders Bas & Julian is infectious at 10am in the morning.
We dive right into a chat with Estelle about what’s being built in this exciting new space.
For someone that's never heard of Mentorjam, how would you describe what your company does?
Okay. I'm trying to not use too many cliches because that is easy to do. So we solve the problem of bringing people together that will not necessarily have met otherwise. Through our solution, you're able to connect with a mentor or mentee that you may have never known or met before. Mentorjam gives you an opportunity to do that… and much more!
Tell me about the company
We are a Dutch-based startup and we are three co-founders. We're all from different countries, South Africa, New Zealand and the Netherlands to bring a nice flow to the business. We were born out of pure frustration really, because I spent over 20 years working in international HR where I built many mentoring formal or informal programs, but was never able to prove that mentoring really works, and wanted the data to back up the return on the investment for all parties involved.
Both of my other co-founders have spent quite a lot of time working in the accelerator/incubator space and through all of our experience collectively we've spent quite a lot of time working in a mentoring capacity. Safe to say, all three of us are very passionate about mentoring.
For me, the key thing was to prove the return on the investment that mentors make. You know, if you think about the amount of time people spend in that mentoring relationship, especially in a corporate world, that's time away from work, et cetera. And then sitting at the boardroom table and saying, “Well, mentoring really works and we need more of that in the business”, you know?
People often ask how this can be proven, perhaps they’re saying “Well, I have a feeling it really works”. It's just not good enough. So I looked in the market and at that point there was very little in terms of solutions. Being a techie myself, I really wanted a solution that's not just a spreadsheet.
So also bringing data and analytics into the business around mentoring was very important. So we looked at the market. There was nothing really that I could bring to the business and go “Well, let's bring this into our mentoring program.”
Julian, who's a developer, was doing lots of mentoring through Startupbootcamp (SBC). And likewise the same thing, you know, he was in these mentoring programs, but there was no momentum, very little structure, guidance or support for Mentors.
Together we came up with a solution that we now call Mentorjam.
So tell me about those foundational moments
Well, that's a great story. Julian and Bas met at Startupbootcamp as SBC was a pilot program for us at that point. Going back a little bit, Julian and I took Mentorjam to WebSummit at the end of 2018 as an MVP and we came away from that with a blend of excitement and frustration. Excitement that we built a product that people want. And frustration not knowing how we move that forward faster. Julian spent the next year coding and building our product by himself. So when we were ready to pilot our program, we took it to SBC where they met. At some stage at the start of 2020, Bas and I met again over a coffee for a chat, just kind of a general career moment chat. And I said to him, “You know, I really think that you should meet Julian.” And his first response to me was “You're a Mrs. Mentorjam?"
It was not too long after that that we joined forces as the team that will take Mentorjam to the next stage of growth. We might have our disagreements at times, but we're always aligned on vision and on the same page.
Can you tell me a little bit more about the three individuals that make up the founding team of Mentorjam and what do each of you bring?
Yeah. So Julian's the technologist who architected and wrote every line of code for our software. He's basically the development team by himself. I bring the operations and the knowledge in terms of building mentoring programs in-company and in communities. I like the planning, financial and operational stuff like that, even though sometimes it's tough, but I do actually enjoy it. And then on the commercial side, Bas is very strong in terms of sales and being able to have those conversations with clients and get them across the line. So there's a really nice triangle that we have there as a team. And yeah, we work really well together.
I want to go further back into your career. What attracted you to the idea of mentorship? How did that happen, and how has your journey been throughout many years working with mentor programs?
I was born in South Africa, in a very traditional home. Women working in business was just not something that was, you know, a thing. My dad worked in finance. He was a banker. And my mom was a stay-at-home mom. So my point of reference was the stay-at-home mom.
Even though on Saturdays, I would sometimes go with him [Dad] to the office, sit on the trade floor and watch him in the dealing room. I always wondered “Where are the women, where are they?". So there was always that kind of like frustration or curiosity, I guess, in the back of my mind. I moved to England when I was in my very early twenties to see the world and learn about other cultures!
My dad wanted me to be in medicine or something like that. But I just didn't have the maths to be fair. So I got a job in London working for an energy company where I met a woman who really took me under her wing. She saw something in me that no one else had ever really, you know, talked about or discovered.
And she was always pushing me to think about a career in the HR space which was never something I would have ever entertained as I had some very bad experiences working with terrible HR Managers prior to that. So for me, it was like, no. But she was really that kind voice I needed, I guess. That smart voice of reason which I needed to really help me move my career forward and help me think outside of the career path I was on at that time.
Would you say that she was your first great mentor?
Absolutely. Yeah. And we are still in contact today, she's definitely someone that I would, you know, turn to sometimes and go, “What do you think about this? Or what do you think about that?”
So if that's the great mentor, what is it that makes that relationship great? And what makes a great mentor relationship in general?
For me, she asked difficult questions, right? And not only that, she wanted me to come up with the answers myself, but she also guided me through her experiences and through her journey. So I could learn from that, you know, she also had some really crazy examples that she could share with me in terms of her career path.
There was definitely that connection. She was really the first business woman that I looked up to and actually thought, you know, she's really smart, ambitious and driven. She's small, she doesn't have a loud voice, and she can do it! I'm sure I can do it. That was that. I mean, the story continues and there are many other examples along the way.
So you're bringing all of that experience along to Mentorjam. Tell me about the customers that you work with. What is it that brings them to your solution?
Up until recently, we hadn't done any official customer feedback, so I thought I might as well just ask a couple of customers because I work with them daily one-to-one. So they said, and I can read you these actually.
**Estelle starts reading through some of her pieces of customer feedback from her notes**
“What I love about Mentorjam is they're actually listening to the users, they're open to feedback to improve their platform.”
“Excellent customer service, really approachable, extremely knowledgeable about the product.”
“What we really love about your company is the contact we have with you guys. You always feel very welcoming, open, helpful, positive, very flexible, constructive, and you think in solutions.”
“We Love your enthusiasm, sense of purpose, and passion for what you do. A very likeable and human approach.”
I mean, there's lots of great stuff here. And I think the thing that resonates here is the human approach. Because at the end of the day, we are a software company, but we have a human approach to every community that we work with.
So what kind of problems do they bring to you?
Problems they bring are mostly around how do we engage our community members? How do we bring people together remotely? We live in this world where we're turning into more of a hybrid in terms of on and offline connections and events. So through our software, we're able to bridge that gap because we bring the solution, the virtual solution, where people can virtually connect, learn about each other's backgrounds, profiles, that kind of stuff… and connect to share knowledge and experiences!
But then the next step is the human connection. Maybe in the next version after COVID, we can all sit around a table and have a coffee together and still be in a mentoring relationship. But the point is that we can bridge that gap between keeping things online and virtual, but we also have the option to then connect people they might have never met in other circles or circumstances.
Is the solution Mentorjam offers built for an internal version of mentor and menteeship? Or is it for external mentors and mentees as well?
Both. So we typically work with three types of customers.
One is the community who offers mentoring to their members as a member benefit.
The next is the in-company solution where companies would purchase the software and they would connect internal mentors with mentees — or they have the option to also bring in external mentors onto the platform for their employees.
And the third audience is all around the accelerator and incubator space. Working with accelerators to run and support their startup or scale up programs. Connecting startups with, mentors, founders and investors.
Amsterdam's such an amazing city to be doing that in as well, as we are discovering. So when you're having initial conversations with customers, what are some of the things that they get wrong about mentorship?
About mentorship or Mentorjam?
They often confuse mentoring and coaching.
Could I ask you to give me a simple definition that differentiates mentorship and coaching?
A coach helps you answer the ‘why’ question. Their reference would never be, “This is how I would do it.” So there wouldn't be a personal element from the coach's point of view, they use specific coaching tools and methodologies.
And then in terms of mentoring, it's a much more holistic view on you as an individual, you share knowledge and experiences between each other. It's often you find the mentor and the mentee both learn from that relationship — and they both take something from it, share personal stories, experiences and learnings and very often there are benefits for both.
That's a great definition. And what are some of the things besides that people don't quite understand?
We're a software company first, so it's not obvious that we also provide consultancy and services.
So as a software company focused, of course, hugely on people. How are you as a team creating a vision and culture as Mentorjam?
Within our company we're extremely collaborative, we trust each other and work well as a team. We’re different and diverse and aligned at the same time. We have fun. At least I think we are all having fun most days. And I think that it's very obvious to our customers as well. Because when they work with us, they can see that we have a passion and a drive and we deliver high quality and at the same time really enjoy what we do. Enjoying what you do really, really helps.
And we work hard. We're not afraid to work hard. We've built this business, from just a dream to a reality. Just the three of us. So yeah, we wear many hats, but we also work really well together. We now support nearly 30 communities globally, and provide homes of over 2500 members across those communities.
We are fortunate enough to be sitting in your brand new office space, which I love. That's very exciting. What else is happening in the near future that you're really excited about?
Wow. So many things. Where do I start? So we've not done any marketing to date, so we are really excited to see what will happen if we do a little bit of marketing, which is a project we are working on now. We’ve also just kicked off a great UX/UI project which should be done by the end of April. So we are giving our software a bit of a design treatment and ramping up marketing. Two big projects we are all very, very excited about.
We also have some really interesting clients in the pipeline, and we look forward to seeing how we can help them make quite a big impact in their business through our solution. That's something that we're super excited about. And finally, I guess finding our feet in our new home.
I was just curious, have you gone through a fundraising process or have you bootstrapped it this far?
We've bootstrapped it all the way. We've talked about funding often, but to date we've not had any investment. This year we're looking for a round. I guess that is a good point to mention. So far absolutely a bootstrap, but we are looking to do a round this year.
To go maybe one step further, what are some of the early goals that you'd be wanting to achieve with this seed round?
Recruitment. So hiring for sure. And, we're going through this UX/UI project at the moment and doing some marketing stuff, but I think for us hiring is really key. If we can get more developers and, if we can get more sales support that would be awesome. On my side in terms of the customer engagement and account management, for sure, again key hires and then scale from there. So recruitment would really take a big chunk of any investment we consider.
As a founder in Amsterdam, would you pick any one piece of advice to give to others who are thinking about pursuing their passion, solving their frustrations, building a team around it as you have? What's some of the most important things you've learned?
Yeah. I think for us, definitely focus is a good one. We all like good ideas and bright, shiny objects in a business way. But it’s important to stay focused on your mission and purpose, and don't be afraid to take risks. You know, there's a lot of opportunity out there, but you have to take the chances and the risks when they come up. This city really brings such opportunity and diversity almost around every corner. So, you know, there's definitely a lot to be gained by not being afraid to take risks and chances as they come up. Don't be afraid, but stay focused on your passion and your vision.
**Bas chimes in from his desk**
Bas: Better is good. So don't go for perfect. Every day, a little step. It's really something. I even get goosebumps when I say this. This is something that I figured out when I was 46.
It's very challenging and we are three virgos. So for us, everything is perfection. It's like “No, no, no, we can't send this out just yet, because it's not completely spot on.” But better is already good. A good reminder.
And if anyone is reading this interview, checking out these portraits and they want to learn more about Mentorjam how can they do that?
The Amsterdam Founder Series is a Troopl initiative with the goal of shining a light on entrepreneurs in Amsterdam and how they are unlocking growth in their companies. If you are, or know of, a founder in Amsterdam who would like to be featured, please get in touch.
Each interview is combined with a portrait photography session conducted by Tristan and Benjamin, co-founders of Troopl. Portraits are made available to participants free of charge.