More than money – the role of mentoring in setting up a business

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Reid Hoffman is one of the world’s most successful business people. He co-founded LinkedIn, was part of the team who created PayPal, brought us the internet’s first social network, SocialNet, all whilst acting as a venture capitalist providing seed capital to Facebook, Zynga and Flickr to name just a few… impressive, right?

Now take a second and consider his description of starting a company as “like throwing yourself off the cliff and assembling an airplane on the way down”.

Undoubtedly, starting a business is one of the most stressful professional challenges you can take on. I’ve done it four times and it’s tough. So it’s not in the least bit surprising that most entrepreneurs can be found agonising over where their next piece of funding is going to come from or when that client will sign on the dotted line…

BUT, these same entrepreneurs are much less likely to be worrying about finding the right mentorship – an often overlooked but, in my view, absolutely crucial factor.

Behind every great business leader there’s one obvious commonality - they all have equally impressive mentors:

  • Bill Gates (Microsoft) was mentored by Ed Roberts - the inventor of the personal computer
  • Larry Page (Google) regularly took advice from Michael Bloomberg, founder of the global media firm and former Mayor of New York City
  • Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) was mentored by the iconic Steve Jobs (Apple)

Fortunately, you don’t need to have access to a world-renowned business personality to find a good mentor. Personally, I found mine in some of those who were respected colleagues and peers - people who really knew how to build, grow and run great businesses. And, most importantly, people who really knew me.

Of course, a mentor can have a network that provides you opportunities, but finding the right mentor is not about who they can introduce you to. It’s much more about finding someone you trust. They must understand your business, your market and understand you as a personality. Only then can they help you be successful in that context.

Go with what you know

You need someone who knows what makes you tick, someone who understands your strengths and weaknesses. That’s why I will always advise entrepreneurs that it will be most valuable to them to choose a mentor they already know.

Sure, there are some great organisations that can help match you to business experts who are looking to support entrepreneurs and this is an option. But if you can, choose someone from your existing network, as a mentor that is unknown to you is of little immediate value.

Of course, you can build a relationship with someone you don’t know, but it will take time. The beginning of your business is when you need mentorship the most, why give yourself a more difficult start?

You’ll naturally look for and acquire multiple mentors as your business grows. It’s only at this point I’d advise looking for a more formal mentor - someone that you don’t know very well, if at all, but has more stature in your industry, for example.

It’s not business, it’s personal

Great mentorship is personal. Like any relationship, it’s all about chemistry.

Your mentor’s expertise and experience are important, and obviously they must believe in you. But these are not the most important qualities you should be looking for. The softer skills of your mentor are much more important. These are the skills that enable you and them to feel that your relationship isn’t just about business: it’s personal.

You need someone who knows what makes you tick, someone who understands your strengths and weaknesses. 

Creating a personal relationship with your mentor will lead to mutual trust, respect, commitment and, most importantly, honesty. And, it’s those truly honest conversations that are priceless.

A word of warning: these honest conversations will certainly expose your personal and commercial weaknesses! But someone you have found mutual trust and respect with won’t be judgemental. Rather, they will understand why they’re your weaknesses because they understand you.

They will empathise with the negative emotions that come hand-in-hand with running a business. Not to be dramatic, but despair, uncertainty and fear are all quite normal feelings for an entrepreneur, particularly in the early days. A trusted mentor will understand that this doesn’t mean you’re not committed anymore, and their personal interest in seeing you succeed will help you cope with the pressure.

Motivate your mentor…

In researching this article, I discovered there are many authors who consider impartiality to be a good trait in a mentor. I don’t! Not at all.

Not to be dramatic, but despair, uncertainty and fear are all quite normal feelings for an entrepreneur, particularly in the early days.

If they’re worth their salt professionally, they’ll be honest about what needs to be done - there’s no room for sitting on the fence. Impartiality means that they’re separate from you, and from the market you’re trying to serve. This is not helpful! Motivate your mentor to help you make your business succeed – give them a stake in it. Their honesty is vital to you.

Mentorship is a two-way street. So that both of you (and your business) get the best out of the relationship, your mentor should have a vested interest in seeing you succeed. They already have a personal interest in you… now give them a financial one.

…don’t expect them to motivate you

If you are looking to your mentor for motivation, you’ve got it all wrong. That’s not what they are there for. Motivation needs to come from you and can only come from you.

Instead, your mentor’s role is to remind you of what started you on your journey in the first place and to point you back toward what motivates you if you get diverted. It’s their job to bring you back to your core, to keep you aligned to your vision. That’s why they need to know you.

It’s only by knowing what motivates you that they can keep you on track, sharing their personal experience to help you overcome the inevitable headwinds and bumps in the road.

And, when all is said and done, never lose sight of the fact that it’s your business and you have to do what is right for you. Remember, it’s ok to make decisions your mentor disagrees with - the honesty I talked about earlier works both ways.

Growing a business is about so much more than money. Finding and tapping into the advice of the right mentor can make or break an entrepreneur and, crucially, their business too. Just make sure it’s someone who has a business and a personal relationship with you.

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