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Mentor Kate Putnam: “If You Don’t Ask, You’ll Never Find Out”

In January, CTNext launched a new mentoring network for the state’s early-stage companies in partnership with The Refinery, an accelerator program. In the first of a series of mentor profiles, we spoke with Kate Putnam to learn more about her approach to working with startups and their founders.

Tell us about your professional background and mentoring style.

Up until now, I have mostly mentored in Massachusetts, where I live, at places like Mass Challenge and MIT. I’m currently an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Valley Venture Mentors Accelerator in Western Massachusetts. I’ve also taught small businesses courses. I have an undergraduate degree in history and an MBA in finance. I worked in banking and corporate treasury, and for almost 20 years I ran a company that made machinery, so I understand the nature of what’s involved in running a small business. In my mentoring, I tend to take a holistic approach. I’m not a subject matter expert but rather more of a jack-of-all-trades, which is really what a CEO has to be.

What inspired you to become a mentor?

I never had a mentor and always wished I had. I noticed that people who had mentors, which for women of my generation were few and far between, did a lot better than the ones who didn’t. I also get really irritated when I see people make the same stupid mistakes I made. So, if I can help people avoid those mistakes, I feel better. There are really brilliant people out there with amazing and fabulous ideas, but they have no idea how to put a business around it. It’s a real treat to work with people like that because they’re grateful for what I can provide, and I feel honored to brush shoulders with people who have such amazing ideas.

Is there a particular type of company you enjoy mentoring?

I prefer working with any company whose founders are eager to soak it all up as fast as they can. The companies I like best are those that have high aspirations around what they think they can achieve, but are willing to listen to advice and ask for needed help.

Every small business has different challenges: Are there any common threads among the young companies you mentor?

The biggest challenge most companies I work with have is understanding how to put a business together. In most cases, the team is made up of two or three people. They may be absolutely brilliant at their product and roadmap, but they have problems with their go-to-market strategy and understanding the customer buying cycle. They will often have a hard time putting their numbers together. Also, I find that most entrepreneurs are wildly optimistic about how quickly someone is going to buy their product and how inexpensive they can make things. A lot of times my job is to provide a dose of reality.

How can CT early-stage companies benefit most from the CTNext Mentoring Network and working with mentors like yourself?

Most mentors will define a comfortable relationship as one where the mentee is coachable. That’s true for investors as well. They don’t like to write checks to companies when their advice isn’t welcome. So, from the standpoint of the company or founder, there needs to be a willingness to seeing their business through someone else’s eyes.

Is there a singular piece of advice you received in your career that you tend to pass on?

“If you don’t ask, you’ll never find out.” That’s the biggest piece of advice I like to pass along. If you don’t ask someone for something, you’ll never know whether someone will do it for you or not. There’s very little harm in asking nicely. I have found that very few people like to say no. Minimally, they are usually willing to pass you along to someone else who can help you out, and it makes them feel good. Asking and being grateful are keys to success.

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