2nd Mar 2012
Darren Fell, founder of online accountants Crunch Accounting, looks at the importance of business mentoring, why you should support other start-ups and why it's never too late to seek advice for your own business.
I am incredibly passionate about the business mentoring I take part in, and I believe more entrepreneurs should feel obligated to join mentoring programmes. The recession, and the record levels of youth unemployment that have accompanied it, has driven more and more young people to start their own business. This is a laudable endeavour, and while each and every one of them has the necessary enthusiasm, many lack very fundamental business skills - and by giving up a few hours of your time you can help them succeed.
By helping this new generation of entrepreneurs set up their first successful business we are not only helping them, we are also helping the economy at large. Everyone is in agreement that the UK’s economic recovery will be driven by small businesses, and it’s in all our best interests to help in any way we can. Also, being completely selfish for a moment, it’s fantastic fun!
To become a successful mentor you of course need to be experienced in business. I set up my first business, Pure360, in 2001 and sold it in 2008, so people appreciate I know every aspect of entrepreneurialism. I have gone from start-up to exit and onto other things, and along the way have dealt with numerous challenges, made plenty of great decisions, and also plenty of mistakes.
I have also had some inspirational mentors myself. One of the investors in my current business is Michael Van Swaaij, who was formerly the chairman of Skype and oversaw eBay Europe when it was in its ascendancy. Michael is the consummate operational guru, and has taught me more than I ever hoped to know about how to scale a business and keep hold of the reigns when the business under you begins to grow quickly.
Our second investor is Paul Birch of Bebo fame. Paul has an uncanny knack for thinking like the customer, and can make tiny tweaks that have a huge impact on the finished product. These two investors have had a profound impact on the way I run my business - an impact I can only hope to emulate.
Both my businesses have been technology-based (the first an email marketing company, the second an online accountancy), so to be able to mentor businesses in different sectors makes for an interesting and wonderfully varied experience.
So far the businesses I have mentored include a crepe shop that was looking to scale up and an online lingerie retailer. Getting my feet wet in the worlds of catering and online retail was a fantastic experience, and I think I learned as much from those who I mentored as they did from me! Next, I am due to mentor a 21-year old entrepreneur who has been running his own catering business since he was 17. To anybody getting into mentoring I would recommend putting aside any preconceptions you have - the person you end up mentoring will be nothing like what you expect, and their business will be just as unique as the owner.
Any entrepreneur worth their salt will have failed as many times as they have succeeded, and this is the most valuable knowledge you can bring to a fledgling enterprise. At first I was worried that by coaching these young entrepreneurs to avoid the mistakes I made, would be to deny them a useful learning experience, but eventually I realised there are so many ways to make mistakes my tips would only postpone the inevitable.
One of my passions is building businesses that scale, so being able to make these young business owners think about scaling right from the outset is - I think - my most valuable contribution. Should they organise the business in a certain manner? Have they figured out how to make sure all the elements of their business scale in unison? Does the revenue model support it?
I’m also a big believer in building disruptive businesses, so I constantly pester my charges to come up with creative ways to outfox their competition.
For marketing, I always espouse a “community” approach. I’m a big believer in goodwill, and it’s always been my experience that if you contribute to the community and treat it with respect, you will be repaid with business. In my online businesses this has taken the form of blogs, guides, podcasts and seminars. I try to make the entrepreneurs I’m mentoring think about how a similar approach could work for their business. The best thing about community marketing for a small business is, of course, it’s completely free.
For any entrepreneurs thinking about taking on a mentoring role I would wholeheartedly encourage it - you’ll help pass the entrepreneurial torch to the next generation, and you might just have a little fun, too!