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‘You don’t get something for nothing’. It’s a well worn phrase which entrepreneurs understand more than most of us care to admit – after all, that’s business. And yet, mentoring – getting advice from an experienced businessperson – is commonplace, fun for both mentor and ‘mentee’, and great for start-ups. If done correctly, you can find yourself with a sizeable chunk of helpful advice for nothing more than your time and a little effort.
By following a few basic rules, finding a mentor can be the most useful thing you do when starting a new business. New experiences and challenges will be daily occurrences on your road to success, and someone who can advise you from a position of experience is invaluable when navigating choppy waters.
Someone who has “seen it, done it and bought the T-shirt” is perfectly placed to tell you how to solve problems or progress the business. And if they cannot, they should be able to recommend you someone who can. Mentoring is far from an exclusive relationship; networking is one of the obvious advantages of working with a successful, well-connected person so it would be a mistake not to take advantage of this. The number of mentors you have is down to you: I have been both a mentee in my own right and mentor to many hundreds of early-stage businesspeople. I have learnt more about business this way than perhaps any other. Some people employ ‘serial mentoring’ where they have a series of short-term mentors. Others stick with a single trusted mentor over a sustained period of time. Either way, your best bet is to keep an ever-growing network of effective advisors you can call on in the future. Don’t make a habit of falling out with people!
Mentoring should be a mutually beneficial relationship based on trust and respect: there is no cost, obligation or most importantly, motive.
When choosing a mentor, consider who you would normally turn to for truthful advice with your best interests at heart. Friends and family should be your first port of call as the relationship you are looking for is already in place. Invite old business colleagues out for a coffee; perhaps do the same for clients with whom you have got on well in the past. If there is no one in your immediate circle who fits the bill, cast your net one step further:theirfriends, colleagues and associates. This theory of “one degree of separation” instantly adds dramatically to your available network. You will be amazed how many diversely qualified people fit into your “friends of friends” network. Furthermore, a meeting where both parties are personally recommended by a mutual friend is a great platform from which to build a strong relationship.
If no one you know, or know of, seems suitable, you are going to have to find them yourself. There is no magical database to search (actually, there are some options online, but do please stick to face-to-face recommendations if possible), so here are some basic, but by no means exhaustive tips:
- Look for someone with at least some understanding of the type of business you want to run. Manufacturing is different to retail; biotechnology is nothing like graphic design.
- Look for skills which you do not have. If you are hopeless with financials, get help with those skills – do not just pick someone who shares the same interests as you!
- But above all, mentoring is like any other relationship: you are looking for someone you like, and who likes you too. A great test of whether you have chosen the right person is how enjoyable the process of meeting them actually is. If they enjoy your company and you enjoy learning from them, this bodes very well.
- Never – ever – pay. Mentoring is always free. If it is not, then it is consultancy; and that is another beast altogether.
Even though this is a business relationship, mentoring needs to be enjoyable for both parties and benefits from a lack of formality. You are gaining the time, advice and insight of an experienced professional so be flexible wherever possible. Meet at your mentor’s convenience, act on their advice quickly and make the fruits of the relationship as clear as possible. Success stories will strengthen your relationship.
On that subject, do listen to your mentor and follow their advice. If your mentor feels that you are wasting their time, they will soon give up on you. Many people who should, frankly, not be running businesses offer excuses like “I would have done it, but…”, “I couldn’t do that because…” etc. These are all phrases to which experienced businesspeople are attuned – and it makes them seethe. Anyone can come up with compelling reasons why problems remain unsolved. As an entrepreneur, you are being credited enough intelligence to go out and find solutions. I have found this the single most frustrating aspect in my time mentoring: your mentor is not a self help guru, the advice they give is valuable, proven and they will rightly expect it to be acted upon.
The mentoring process, reduced to its core, is a matter of respect. In choosing them, you have identified your mentor as a successful businessperson whom you admire and respect. By setting aside time to give you the benefit of their experience, they have done the same. No money is changing hands and no deal is being struck; it is an honest exchange of knowledge, ideas and experience. If harnessed correctly, it will take your business forward and save you from mistakes which are entirely avoidable, because a queue of other people have made them before.