Starting a new business is often a lonely endeavour, but it isn’t something you should do alone.
Granted – this is easier said than done, because most startups are the brainchild of just one or two people. They rarely consist of people from all walks of business life who can call on countless years of collective experience to make an immediate dent in their industry.
This is where the importance of mentors comes in. A mentor is someone who has a significant amount of experience in a given field and who is particularly good at working with people in order to get the best out of them.
The best mentors are able to impart their knowledge, offer invaluable advice and are unafraid to point out when things should be done differently.
If you’re heading into the exciting but perilous world of a startup business, you need a mentor – it’s as simple as that. And, in this blog post, we’re going to consider how you might find one that is right for you and what to expect when working with them.
How to find a mentor
Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a ‘mentor store’ – nor can they be found conveniently placed in every business meeting you attend. Mentors need to be sniffed out and proactively found, because they’ll rarely come looking for you.
Firstly, you need to work out why you need a mentor. Is it because you’re vastly inexperienced in the business side of your startup? Are you unsure about how to execute your big idea? Is the product or service you’ve created starting to sell at significant volume and developing into something that scares and excites you in equal measure?
Mentors aren’t miracle workers, but they are able to offer the best advice you’re ever likely to come across in very specific areas. It’s therefore vital that you define those areas from the outset.
Next, you need to start scouring the land for your perfect mentor. The good news is that the age we now live in presents multiple opportunities to discover and connect with people who can help you along the path to success.
• At networking events. If you don’t already attend networking events relevant to your industry, it’s worth setting some time aside to do so. These kind of gatherings usually feature some very knowledgeable people who are actively seeking individuals or businesses to mentor, and you’ll only find them if you attend yourself.
• On social media. Start connecting with as many industry peers as possible on Twitter and LinkedIn. Join in discussions and look for opportunities to connect directly with people who appear to be thought leaders. Even if they’re not mentor material, your increased activity online won’t go unnoticed and could lead to a chance encounter with someone who is.
• Within partnership networks. If part of your startup strategy is to partner with other businesses in order to provide the services your target market requires, there’s a strong chance you might bump into someone with vast experience. Talk to your partners as regularly as possible and don’t be afraid to admit that you’re after as much help as you can find.
• Via recommendations. If you know someone within your family, or an old colleague who has benefited from some form of mentorship, you could do a lot worse than ask for an introduction. You never know – they might suit your requirements perfectly, too.
It’ll take time to find the right mentor for your needs, but once you find them, you can get down to the exciting business of working closely with them.
In order to make the most of a mentor, it’s important that you’re armed with the right kind of questions. And that’s largely what mentoring is all about; it’s a two-way conversation during which you get the opportunity to quiz an expert on what really matters to your business.
Here are ten things aspiring entrepreneurs should ask their mentor:
1. What was your biggest failure?
Get in there straight away with this one. Don’t be afraid – the right mentor will relish the opportunity to tell you what they’ve done wrong and the lessons it taught them.
We learn and grow from our mistakes, but if you can learn from someone else’s, you’ll immediately be one step ahead of the pack.
2. If you could do it all again, what would you change?
It takes time to get a business right, and even when you think you’ve cracked it, there’ll always be those quiet moments when you look back and curse the day you didn’t make a particular decision.
Your mentor will almost certainly desire a time machine to reverse an old, ill-conceived idea. Find out what it was.
3. What are you going to accomplish this year?
Remember – working with a mentor is a two-way affair. As much as their job is to question your goals, you can do the same with theirs.
Ask what they hope to achieve in both the long and shot term. Their answers will give you a brilliant insight into how they solve problems and plan strategically – two things you’ll need to become a master of.
4. What was your first impression of my business?
Mentors start off as strangers, and that means they’ll approach your startup with fresh eyes. They won’t have preconceived notions of what it’s all about, nor will they have experienced its service.
Their first contact will likely be with you, the website and its branding. What did they think?
5. What’s the one thing you wish you knew at my stage?
Your mentor will have been at the exact stage you’re at, at least once (possibly, several times). They’ll therefore know exactly what the experience taught them, enabling you to avoid common missteps.
6. What’s the first thing you’d do to this business tomorrow?
Mentors are great at putting themselves in other people’s shoes. If you give them the chance to do that with your startup, they’ll provide a fascinating insight into what you’re missing.
7. Is this a daft idea?
Go on – ask. You may have got it all wrong. There may not be a market for your big idea.
Whether or not that is the case, one thing is for sure – you’re probably not going to admit it to yourself.
Take a deep breath and ask your mentor instead.
8. What worries you the most about my business?
Again, this is another question that is unlikely to draw out an answer that you favour, but it’s a crucial one.
A mentor will quickly identify any significant obstacles or challenges your startup is either facing or has inadvertently created itself. Once you know what the main one is, you can make changes, so don’t be afraid to probe deeply with this one.
9. How would you handle this scenario?
Chances are, there’ll be one particular challenge you’re yet to overcome – because you don’t know how to.
Good news – you now have a mentor, and they should be able to provide you with a solution. That is, a solution you must carry out, based on their advice (don’t expect them to do it for you!).
10. Who else should I work with?
Mentors know other mentors. In fact, once you get into that circle, you’ll discover it offers a wealth of opportunities to work with plenty of very smart, well-connected people.
Your mentor should be in amongst them all, and the more they start to understand your challenges, the better they’ll get at recommending others who could offer additional help.
Working with a mentor is incredibly rewarding, but it requires a strong stomach and even thicker skin.
Although the relationship may well blossom into one of friendship, it should always be remembered that a mentor is there to make your business better, and to do that, they may have to occasionally tell you exactly how it is – even if they have to uncover some unpleasant home truths in the process.
Find your mentor and start asking them the questions above – it’ll be one of the best things you do for your startup.