It's easy to see why mentoring appeals: having a wise entrepreneurial head to turn to for sage advice is an asset most business owners would welcome. Who wouldn't want to learn from someone else's mistakes and knowledge?
If it's such an obvious win for budding entrepreneurs, why aren't more seeking mentors? When you ask this question to small business owners and start-ups, the most frequent response is 'I don't know where to find one' or 'I tried it but we weren't quite right for each other'.
With that in mind, here's Smarta's five-step-guide to finding not just any mentor, but one that's right for you and your business:
The most obvious place to start and where you're most likely to find a relationship with an immediate bond is considering people you already know. Explore your network: friends and family, former bosses, existing business contacts. Who do you admire and respect? Who has already been a role model for you?
Be careful though: you want someone who's going to be impartial and brutally honest. You also want someone who, while understanding your business, is removed enough to give an outsiders' viewpoint. Remember that familiarity can sometimes breed contempt - don't put any relationship you value under unnecessary strain.
Don't just look at your network, ask them for recommendations. Put word out that you're looking for a mentor and ask your social media followers and friends to offer up suggestions. Consult your accountants and lawyers - they might have larger clients on their books who have just sold and are looking for projects to get involved with, or who are simply good personal matches.
There's absolutely nothing wrong - and nothing to fear - in targeting a mentor you've never met. Think about entrepreneurs whose ethos you've always respected, those who've achieved success in similar markets or businesses and who, it goes without saying, you think you'll be able to get on with.
It's easier if you can find someone happy to introduce you, but otherwise go in cold with a short, simple explanation of who you are, what you're doing, why you admire them and request a meeting. You can start your search by looking at the entrepreneurs we've interviewed, or the Smarta 100 winners. Try searching Twitter too to find key people in your industry.
Be realistic. Sir Richard Branson probably gets a hundred or so requests a day. You also need to appreciate the vast majority of entrepreneurs will simply be too busy to help. Try and pick mentors with a natural incentive to get involved: you don't want someone who's only doing it because you're paying them. It's far better to target someone with a passion for your sector who'll want to support you. Appreciate any such request is a long shot and thank those that aren't able to help for taking the time to reply.
There's no official government mentor-matching scheme, but it can be worth contacting your Regional Development Agency (RDA) who might have details for mentoring groups or services in your area. Your RDA may also refer you to an Enterprise Support Organisation (ESO) to meet a business adviser who can offer mentoring services.
The Prince's Trust can put you in touch with a business mentor if you're aged between 14 and 30, while in Scotland, the Prince's Scottish Youth Business Trust (PSYBT) may be able to help with funding, support and advice if you're aged between 18 and 25.
Young Enterprise has several programmes aimed at giving young people an understanding of how business works by helping them to run their own businesses.
It's worth exploring these options, but in truth, the chances of the average business owner both qualifying for various schemes and meeting someone suited to their needs are slim at best - our advice is that you give it a go, but keep searching elsewhere.
Finding a mentor is not dissimilar to finding a business angel: if they don't find you, you're going to have to find them. The first place to start is by signing up to sites such as Rockstar, which for a small monthly fee, matches business owners with suitable mentors and offers varying degrees of one-on-one interaction.
Other sites, such as Horsemouth.co.uk encourage peer-to-peer mentoring, although this is more likely to offer a one-off solution to a problem than the birth of a long-term mentorship.
It's also a case of getting out there and networking hard. Established entrepreneurs actively seeking mentoring roles will position themselves in environments were the most exciting, innovative businesses are mixing. Make sure you're there. (Read our feature on finding business networking events in your area to find them.) Don't try to force anything, and take the events at face value, but follow up on any introductions you think could evolve into a mentoring partnership.
Far more important than where you find a mentor is finding one you can work with. Sector and business matches are obviously desirable, as is experience of overseeing the sort of growth you've got planned. For instance, if you plan to make acquisitions, someone who's been around the negotiation table before, dealt with integration and knows their way around a warranty could prove invaluable. In turn, someone who hasn't could actually advise you adversely.
Whatever their experience, chemistry is more important. You've got to click. Immediately. That doesn't mean you have to be the same - far from it - but you have to be able to have frank, detailed conversations. There needs to be trust and respect on both sides and it should be fun. You need to share the same ethics, have the same vision and have joint goals. Be clear and honest about each other's motives and the single thing you can both do to help one another. This has to be a two-way partnership.
Agree what you want from each other. Is this person going to sit on your board, will you give them shares or are they merely a friend you can call on? If so, is there any form of remuneration? How often will you speak, when is it okay and not okay to contact each other? When is it okay to email but not call?
Agree all this in advance and it shouldn't be a problem going forward. If it's proving complicated to agree, ask yourself why you're doing it. Unless it feels really awkward, agree that you're officially in a mentoring partnership and put something in writing - it'll show a commitment on both sides. Other than that, keep to the two golden rules to any successful business partnership: be honest and communicate.
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