What’s the difference between mentors, advisors and SMEs?

Kellie Kuzmuk is the membership Program Manager at Cintrifuse.

In our mission to support entrepreneurs, one of the many resources our startups can take access is a broad network of Subject Matter Experts (SME), focused in many different functions and industries. This is different than how many people think about mentors.

By running this program from both the SME and entrepreneur side, I have noticed that people have many questions around what exactly an SME is and what they can expect out of an SME relationship. In fact, the terms “mentor,” “advisor,” and “expert” are often used synonymously.  Entrepreneurs may have (or at least have heard of) mentors or advisors and are not quite sure how to disentangle what it means to have a mentor versus an advisor versus a subject matter expert. Conversely, potential mentors or experts looking to engage with startups often do not understand what is expected of them as they navigate which type of relationship will be the best fit.

What are mentors?

A mentor is focused on the person they are mentoring – oftentimes the person who founded the business.

That person can be an experienced entrepreneur or someone who faced a similar journey. Since the relationship is linked to the individual people involved, it tends to be longer term and requires regular meetings or check-ins. Every mentor/mentee connection is going to look a little different.

A mentor is investing in the entrepreneur’s personal growth and indirectly into the development of the company, taking more of an inward-out approach. Mentor relationships are, by nature, more personal and less of a formal business agreement, as mentors are not financially linked to the business. Mentors tend to be very giving and well-connected people who want to “pay it forward” and help others achieve success as an entrepreneur.

What are advisors?

Unlike mentors, advisors focus on the business itself rather than the person running it.

Advisors take more of an outward-in approach by focusing on the bigger, more causal picture of what is happening with the company. This makes sense because, many times, advisors are financially implicated with the company (meaning they have put money in as investors or plan to eventually take money out through a liquidity event). In addition to a personal relationship with founders, advisors also have a legal relationship to a company.

Many times, advisors are part of an advisory board where they are more effectively able to leverage influence over the trajectory of the company. Like mentors, advisory relationships usually require regular connections and exist over the full lifecycle of a business.  

What are subject matter experts?

The focus for these relationships is on the specific challenge an entrepreneur is facing in a functional area.

An SME is a person with expertise and experience in a certain area.  SME’s experience can include a variety of functions — from finance to human resources, legal, marketing, product management, business development and product development. The expectations for an SME connection is 1-2 short meetings about the specific question.

Unlike mentors or advisors, SMEs do not typically meet on a regular basis unless both parties are interested in extending their relationship longer term. This allows for greater flexibility and and less-stringent demand for time while managing the relationship. The SME is not expected to advise on every aspect of the company, but rather address a pressing request. Subject matter expertise can also include beta testing, which means you are one of the first eyes on a new product or design iteration. It is critical for startups to get user’s feedback on early product versions to inform their roadmap in the future and help prioritize features.


Interested in accessing Cintrifuse’s SME network?

The first step toward tapping into the expertise of our network of Subject Matter Experts is by becoming a member! Please complete the membership application.

Already a member? Reach out for more details.

Interested in joining Cintrifuse’s Network of Subject Matter Experts?

Cintrifuse’s SME Program is a volunteer network where SME’s are matched with startups to help them navigate their toughest challenges. If you are interested in joining the network, please complete this form so we can match you with the right opportunities. You can also join our beta testing group there to receive requests for feedback.

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