Mentors are a key part in keeping you on track with your goals and generally being a great source of ‘been there, done that, made the mistakes’ experience. Managing them can be difficult, so here’s my advice.
Through my work in building YENA I’ve been lucky enough to find many experienced entrepreneurs and turn them into mentors, which has been great on the whole but has also ironically presented a problem – advice from one mentor has often contradicted another. It’s difficult to see who might be right and who might be wrong.
The truth is that no matter how experienced or insightful the mentor is, they’ll never know exactly what is going on in your head and your business. And this can lead to bad decisions.
For example, in a recent meeting a mentor advised me to focus purely on one revenue stream of our business, as this is the most likely to grow and make us sustainable faster. That’s true, but the reality was that the service wasn’t fully formed yet and it was actually a smarter decision to hold back for a while until we really knew what we were offering to those currently paying clients and were comfortable with how we support them and sell to new customers.
Rushing out and doing as suggested did mean an influx in customers, which was nice for revenue but meant neglecting our first customers - something I’m sure you’ll agree is a complete no-no for a startup.
However, mentor advice can also mean great decisions happen faster.
As a community that was built on events, we’ve only ever had one sponsor in four years. This is almost unheard of but, as I’d never sold sponsorships before, I thought best to focus on what I knew.
A meeting with another mentor highlighted that not selling sponsorship opportunities meant missing out on revenue that would support the salaries of myself and my first staff member. And it would allow us the time to continue to really deliver and build brand advocacy with our first customers, rather than driving more on-boarding and creating higher churn.
In this case, I listened and it really helped.
Managing multiple mentors can be a bit of a nightmare, so here’s my advice:
- Do you really need them? If not, be honest and say that you’d like to focus on other areas of the business or simply lessen the contact with them - it’s likely they’re busy anyway and will usually just respond, rather than going out of their way to reach you
- When you find the right one - someone who thinks like you and has seen success already - work with them more and repay them for what they do for you. It’s not hard to buy someone a bottle of wine or flowers for the help they’ve given. A quick look at their social accounts can help you personalise that gift and in most cases they’ll be very grateful and only too happy to continue to help
- Set clear expectations and time constraints. Suggest meeting once a quarter or once every other month, for example. Not too often that no profound progress has been made, not too far apart that the impact of the mentor will be limited
I’ve done exactly as advised in points two and three, and that has seen meetings go from more formal drinks to chats in their dining room with the dog. That sounds fairly silly, but it really shows trust has increased to a certain level and that the mentor is invested in the relationship going forward.
This opens more introduction opportunities as they’re happier to be representing you and this will help drive your business forward.
My final bit of advice is that some mentors would like to be paid, while some don’t care. My experience has seen the latter be more helpful - they’re with you because of your ‘why’ not your money. However, if they are just too busy to share time without payment (which is fair as they spent years building that knowledge and personal demand, after all) it may be worth looking at turning that transaction into a non-exec director instead, so that the agreement is official and they have an obligation to help, as per the terms you’ll agree.