Posted: Wed 24th Jul 2019
Mentors empower entrepreneurs by providing perspective. Effective mentors can help small business owners evaluate ideas and unlock the aspirations they have for the business.
The key is to find someone who can challenge your thinking, share the actions you've taken and be flexible about how the relationship evolves. Here, Enterprise Nation members share their tips on how to find mentors and get the most value out of these relationships.
Why look for a business mentor?
The small business owners we spoke to approached mentors because they were just starting up and wanted guidance, or had reached a point where they weren't sure what to do next.
Entrepreneurs often feel overwhelmed with the number of opportunities they can pursue, whether it's choosing which marketing channels to focus on or how to package their services. Talking through these challenges helps to identify priorities.
"I was getting frustrated because I didn't feel like I was making enough headway in what I wanted to do with my business. The thing I started it up to do wasn't the thing I liked. I got to the point where I had so many ideas in my head."
Their conversations helped her decide how to deliver services and bring the business back into line with her aspirations.
How can I find a mentor?
Minal met her mentor in a previous job role. She said it was useful to have someone who wasn't in the industry and who helped systematically unravel the things she was thinking about.
It's worth thinking about the skillset potential mentors have, because they might not need to be a business owner. For example, an operations director might provide a goldmine of advice for the founder of a food business who's trying to figure out their supply chain.
Seekology founder and Enterprise Nation member Rebecca Saunders benefits from having two successful entrepreneurs as mentors in Fenwick CEO Robbie Feather and Meg Lustman, former CEO of Hobbs. Rebecca said these relationships evolved over time.
"It's preferable to build a relationship with someone you want to be a mentor, rather than just asking them 'will you be my mentor?'. Robbie is my former boss and Meg is someone who worked at John Lewis at the same time as me and who I simply asked for coffee. Obviously the chemistry and the expectations have to be aligned."
While these business leaders helped provide validation, friends with their own businesses have supported Seekology too, Rebecca said. Facebook groups are a route to building relationships and seeking out industry-specific advice, from finding a trademark lawyer to the best website platform for particular purposes.
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Look for support programmes
There are lots of free support programmes that offer mentoring for small business owners. Nadya Quintanilla started a design consultancy after moving to the UK from El Salvador.
She looked for mentors to help her understand the process, starting with Barking Enterprise Centres's Inspiring Women Programme and Female Founders Accelerator programmes.
"It really helped me out in so many ways: as a soundboard, as sharing experiences, as encouragement. Most importantly, to have someone who can help and support along the business journey."
This included developing a cash-flow forecast and creating a service that will generate recurring revenue.
The first scheme included meeting for an hour a month for six months, with sessions largely held online. The second included an hour and a half meeting every month at Barking Enterprise Centres's office.
Managing your relationships with a mentor
Make sure you keep your mentor updated on your progress. Sharing the impact of the actions you've taken is a great way to demonstrate the value of the advice and will make the experience more rewarding.
Rebecca Saunders said:
"It's about building genuine relationships, so that it doesn't feel like you're talking all the time. You have interesting discussions that are less transactional and more of a relationship. Keeping people updated with what you're doing without any particular agenda helps too."
The mentor and mentee should be able to challenge each other too. Entrepreneurs often receive conflicting advice and there will be times when you have to go with your gut. If you're unsure, try asking your mentor for a practical example from their background that helps illustrate how an idea has worked in the past.
Having a mentor who will challenge ideas and support the work you're doing is a great way to build confidence, particularly if you're the sole owner of the company.
Minal Patel said:
"I know in some instances I need a little bit of a shove to do things I'm not comfortable doing. One of the things I'm not comfortable with is talking about myself, my experience and what I can bring to a business."
Since talking to her mentor, she's felt more confident sharing her background and how this helped her become an expert.
Nadya Quintanilla stressed the importance of putting yourself out there when you're thinking about finding a mentor. She didn't meet the criteria for the first scheme she applied for, but the team worked with her on the business until she was ready and the connections have paid dividends.
Minal Patel echoed this sentiment, saying that she would have benefited from having someone sooner.
"Don't be scared of doing it. It can only have a positive impact. You're so involved in your business that sometimes you need someone to take you right out of it and look at it from a distance. If I had done it a year earlier I would have been further on now."
Help to Grow: Management
A government programme to help 30,000 business leaders improve productivity and growth. Includes a 90% funded, 12-week training course then a period of one-to-one mentoring from experienced business leaders and mentors.