The road to building a successful startup is not always a smooth one. There are a lot of things to get right - strategy, budget and competition to name just a few. This can lead to many budding entrepreneurs forgetting one of the most crucial influences that they need to drive success: a mentor.
In entrepreneurial life it is inevitable to feel as though you are swimming against the tide. There is a lot of excitement that comes with the freedom of making things up as you go along, however, having a sounding-board can help reduce some of the chaos. Navigating a new and unknown landscape can be simpler if you have the guidance of a mentor.
Drawing from my own experience, I didn’t have a support network to assist me in weighing up the pros and cons of available options when my first business began to grow at a rapid pace. Armed with hindsight, I believe a good mentor is a great source of proactive support to any entrepreneur in a startup environment.
What makes a good mentor?
There are several aspects that define a good mentor:
- A good mentor should be a non-executive and maintain an arm's length relationship with the business.
- It is vital that they know the industry well and understand the challenges that the business faces.
- A mentor should also help build on the strengths of the business, while offering a wealth of knowledge that comes from their own personal experience.
- They should be able to do all of this while maintaining a refreshing and energetic passion for developing the entrepreneur and the key players in the team.
How can mentors add value to a business?
A mentor should be in a position to pre-empt problems or obstacles that lie ahead, whilst ensuring that hidden opportunities are recognized and seized. A great mentor will also offer the ultimate startup tool - a ‘Little Black Book’ of contacts which can open doors that many entrepreneurs are unable to leverage themselves.
When mentoring entrepreneurs, I ensure that I offer as much insight and advice as possible for them to be successful by supporting them to make their own decisions – not by making the decisions for them. This can sometimes include speaking to customers of the businesses to gather their opinions before feeding back to the executive team.
This external information enables me to provide the tools and guidance needed to form the strong foundations of a mentor-mentee relationship. It is important to strike the right balance but, once fine-tuned, it can accelerate the growth of a startup and help a business become more competitive.
How do I choose the right mentor for my business?
There are several factors to consider when seeking a mentor, each as integral as the next. Direct entrepreneurial experience and knowledge of implementing a 'disruption strategy' are vital characteristics of a startup mentor.
Crucially, an entrepreneur should not seek a mentor until they have taken the time to consider what both they and their business hope to achieve from the relationship. The entrepreneur should also consider what style of guidance or providing advice is best suited to them.
There is quite a significant difference between engaging a mentor and engaging a coach, as both serve different purposes. A coach will use methodologies to coax answers to problems, whereas a mentor will draw from his or her own experiences and provide advice based how they have tackled similar situations. Bear this in mind when deciding what would best suit your business needs and style of work.
Boundaries and milestones
Once a mentor has been appointed, a critical first step is mutually establishing goals, frequency of input required and relevant deadlines. This framework will not only set milestones, but it will help the mentor and mentee realize what success looks like to both of them. Rules of engagement, such as meeting frequencies and levels of involvement, also need to be addressed up front.
The most important element of a mentor/mentee relationship is for the mentee to take the driving seat. An entrepreneur works with a mentor because they have mutually recognized the business has the potential to benefit from the mentor’s insight. Therefore the mentee needs to take charge of the relationship to ensure that they can deliver the optimum outcome by working together.
I have found that meeting outside of the business environment or the company setting is the most efficient way to elevate productivity. Avoiding inevitable distractions from the business often allows the entrepreneur to think clearly and laterally to recognize what is actually occurring within the business. The best business decisions are often the most considered and there is no better way to move a business towards success than to involve someone who has been there before.
About the Author
John Stapleton has 30 years’ experience in pioneering new FMCG categories and establishing and growing successful consumer-led businesses including New Covent Garden Soup Co Ltd. and Little Dish. John provides business growth advice and mentorship to growing businesses, is a business thought leader, and speaks on a wide range of entrepreneurial management and motivational leadership topics.