Over the years, I have read a number of personal and professional development books and drawn on educational resources for entrepreneurial inspiration. And I am yet to come across a resource that doesn’t highlight the importance and need for a mentor, particularly when you are building your startup.
Mentors are important but you need to ensure you are identifying likeminded people, engaging effectively with them, and demonstrating your learning for the process to be mutually beneficial.
A mentor can provide a sounding board for your ideas and offer advice when you are weighing up solutions to an issue or looking for guidance. First find a mentor who has achieved the success you are working towards or belongs to the industry your startup serves and then learn as much as you can from them; this experience is invaluable.
Christie Whitehill, CEO of startup guidance business Hatching Lab, understands the importance of mentoring for startups.
“95% of small businesses fail within the first 5 years, so as a startup founder, getting access to expert mentors in your field early on can be very beneficial to your professional development and the success of your business,” Whitehill said.
“When I started my first tech startup, the support and advice I received from mentors is what helped me propel my business learning and avoid costly mistakes.”
Mentoring is paramount for guiding you on the right path to make sound business decisions. A mentor will ideally have experienced some of the challenges you are currently facing to offer their advice and knowledge based on their previous experience.
According to Whitehill, the support of someone who has been through the same business journey as you is motivating and demonstrates what is achievable as a startup in your chosen industry.
“I still made a lot of mistakes along the way, however learning from people who have been there and done that can give you the hindsight and experience you don’t necessarily have to create a successful business,” she said.
Finding a mentor
Say you have identified a well-known and impressive person you have never met, but are not sure how to approach them. Try emailing through your questions and the reason for contacting them. They may have a particular trait you would like to develop in yourself, or you may simply find their background inspiring; whatever the reason, be sure to include it.
Finding a great mentor can be challenging, Whitehill said, but when you can find a way to help each other there are infinite benefits and lessons to be realised.
“If you’re a good networker, go to networking events in your industry,” she said. “Making face to face connections and building relationships can help you find the right people. I also reached out to people on LinkedIn and asked if I could buy the person a coffee or lunch for 30 minutes of their time.”
Tell the person why you’re contacting them, show you’re invested in learning from their experiences, and you’ll be surprised who responds with good ideas, advice, and interest for future mentorship.
“Remember you can’t force someone to be your mentor, or expect them to want to help you long term in exchange for nothing,” Whitehill said. “Mentoring can come in many forms and depending on what kind of help you need in your business, you can get valuable advice through paid education programs and events.”
Beyond email, LinkedIn communication, and networking functions, attending more structured educational workshops will expose you to impressive people you can learn from. Attending workshops and learning from likeminded people will assist you in establishing a network of people with shared goals and values, making the process of finding mutually beneficial mentoring relationships more effective.
Searching for Facebook Groups and relevant Meetups in your industry for startups and entrepreneurs will also help in connecting you with likeminded people. A quick keyword search will display relevant groups and upcoming events in your area.
Engaging properly with your mentor
Effectively engaging with your mentor is one of the most important parts of ensuring you both positively benefit from sharing your ideas and challenges. Before you meet with your mentor ensure you have a well-considered list of things you would like to learn from this person. You can then discuss how information can be shared best between you.
It’s also important to note your mentors may change as you grow and move through the various stages of building and growing your startup. For example, someone who helped you with the development process when you were starting out may be different to someone you seek guidance from when you are ready to pitch for funding. Just ensure you are grateful for everyone who helps and makes time for you, and do your best to work around their schedule.
“It’s important that if someone is giving you advice for free, to reciprocate and try to meet where convenient for them and offer to pay,” Whitehill said.
A mentor will enjoy sharing their knowledge, provided you demonstrate you are invested in learning from this person, but remember that you need to drive the relationship. Make sure you are prepared when you meet with your mentor through writing down your current challenges, important questions and researching recent news or information that will provide you with an overview of what your mentor has been working on recently. Preparation is key, according to Whitehill.
“When you do spend time with them, come prepared with questions and also show them you’re actioning things they’ve taught you,” she said. “If they can see you’re not learning from them or taking direction, it might deter them from wanting to help you.”
“Usually people worth learning off are busy people so I’d say it is up to you and the mentor with the arrangement of how they can help you and if there is a cost to it.”
Finally, remember how valuable a good mentor is, and, when you have progressed to a certain stage and have the capacity, think about who you could mentor to pay it forward.
You may join a networking group that meets regularly so you can share your knowledge or sign up to a university mentoring scheme to help people who were once in your position. You may even become the next presenter at a Meetup group or forum where you were once an attendee, demonstrating the immense value people get through being mentored, and learning to operate through the experienced lens of the mentor, to building strong professional relationships.