Business Mentor - Do you need one?

Monday 20th April 2020 Dave Sharp Start Ups!

I was recently reading an article in the small business section of the Independent on-line newspaper about the different outcomes between small business owners that have a mentor and those that don't. There were a couple of things about the article that stood out.

What is the real cause of a small business failure?

At the top of the article there is a hypothesis that whilst lack of funding in the early stages is a common cause of small business failure, there is a directly correlating effect with those businesses that had a mentor and those that different. Its true that often a business mentor knows where and how to access different start-up funds but my feeling here is that the mentor often stops the entrepreneur from chasing funding, preferring instead to chase customers. If the funding was aimed at the mentor and the mentor is focused on customers for the new business, that to me seems the right way around. Its all too common for the new business to chase the funding to pay the mentor.

The article then goes on to point out that businesses with mentors survive at a higher rate than ones without them.

What is mentoring?

Mentoring still feels a little woolly for many people – a fringe benefit it would be nice to have in an ideal world, but not intrinsic to a small business’s chances of success; certainly not more valuable than bank funding.

I would challenge this view whole-heartedly. Bank funding is something that every entrepreneur would ideally wish for, but this comment would make it sound like a good mentor is worth less than support by a bank. Personally I see this in reverse. Not only will a good mentor be with the entrepreneur through the good times and the bad - the mentor is capable of influencing the growth of the business in a way a bank never could.

If you're considering the idea of a business mentor and are not clear about what mentors do to deliver growth then there are a number of websites and organisations that can advise you, just not a bank.

Why do entrepreneurs not use mentors?

The next part of the article highlights that whilst there are a number of business mentoring programs - the take up of these schemes is actually quite low. So why don't entrepreneurs take up the mentoring on offer?

For me there are two different syndromes here. One is just a basic fear, fear of an unknown. It's sometimes difficult for the entrepreneur to imagine that any mentor would understand or be interested in their business. They imagine (sometimes) that the mentor is going to try and change the business or even worse - tell them that the business won't work. As an experienced business mentor it is common for me to not fully understand a business when I first engage with it, but its also extremely rare to come across a new business that has no chance of success. All businesses have problems and good mentors focus on solutions to issues that are stopping the business from progressing.

The second reason an entrepreneur might not engage a mentor is ego. Its quite common to meet an entrepreneur who is not utilising a mentor relationship and get the sense that they feel they are better than any mentor, or that they have no problems that would require a mentor. If I get this feeling when I meet an entrepreneur for the first time I often do press them for an explanation of why they feel they don't need the support. Invariably you get a vague and narcissistic reflection on why they don't need a mentor.

Selecting a business mentor

Here are some personal thoughts on selecting a business mentor:

  • Do you know someone already? Someone you have worked for/with previously? Someone you respect?

  • Make a list of the issues and challenges you want the mentor to help you with and then match it to any names you had from the previous point and see if there is a very positive fit with a certain person.

  • Ask anyone you know with a mentor already how its working and get any tips or advice from them.

  • Decide how you want to work with the mentor. Mentors are not there to tell you what to do, so decide up front how often / how much interaction you want. Possibly a little more in the early days and then tapering off slightly once the initial discussions are over.

  • There are some excellent funding pots to help you pay for your mentoring. Do some research around your local area to find out what is available to you and how to access it.

I can't afford a mentor!

I hear this a lot. Paying a mentor can often be a problem. If you can find someone to work with you for free then there can still be a massive upside, but because your not paying them its possible they may not be available when you need them - they need to make a living too! The next temptation is to offer them equity for their help. Personally I don't recommend this - and as a mentor I don't take equity for my input/time. Speak candidly with your prospective mentor about payment, there is always some kind of deal to be done. I have a number of ways of engaging with small businesses that can't immediately pay for my time, I'm sure other mentors have the same capacity to do a deal.

My number one piece of advice is to work with someone you like. When things are not going well, working with someone you like is going to make things a whole lot easier. Any dislike of the mentor will come out quickly when things are difficult and tense. The mentor doesn't want this any more than you do.

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