Mentoring: a leg-up for startups

By Alon Sachs, Mentorship Chair of the Entrepreneur's Organisation (EO)

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Having a mentor when you start a business can be as important as the actual product or service you’re selling. While the research on the positive impact of mentorship is clear, so many entrepreneurs still don’t have a mentor. To have a good business idea is one thing, but taking that idea to market, and building a profitable and reputable brand is no easy feat. The journey is long and challenging. To have a mentor as a guide during these early and crucial stages is essential.

A 2019 study that surveyed 209 South African recipients found that the majority of the respondents, 73.7% (154), had one or two mentoring relationships. 8.10% (17) had more than five mentoring relationships, while 46.6% (97) had been in a mentoring relationship in the past. Looking at some of the world’s most successful business leaders, for example Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin, both had received mentoring by Steve Jobs and Eric Schmidt respectively at the early stages of their businesses, highlighting that mentoring is a crucial part of most business strategies.

What is a mentor?

A mentor is often seen as a role-model. Someone you aspire to be like. They have tons of experience and wisdom you can learn from. It is someone who offers their knowledge, time and advice to those with less experience.

Mentors are not meant to have all the answers

While a mentor comes with mountains of experience, it’s not up to them to give advice to a mentee on how to overcome the day-to-day challenges of the business. They offer guidance, support and encouragement regarding long-term goals and challenges as well as career development. Ultimately it’s the business owner’s responsibility to take action. Mentors will be there to champion their efforts as they complete suggested objectives.

Think long-term

All new businesses should have the future in mind, but that is easier said than done when you are the only one making big decisions. Mentors offer an external perspective when it comes to making decisions that can cost you in the long run. They are more easily able to see your pain points as well as new opportunities and areas with room for improvement. You and your team might not always be able to spot the things that a mentor can.

How to find a mentor

Start by identifying what type of resource you need. Ask yourself: What is my vision? What does success look like to me? What is my objective? What can my mentor do for me? You may want someone who’s well connected, for example, or someone with expertise in a specific area.

■ Organisations that offer networking opportunities.
Networking groups and organisations like the Entrepreneur’s Organisation (EO), offer a wide range of networking opportunities where you get to meet other entrepreneurs who may be leaders in their field and who are a potential fit as a mentor. A big bonus is that you won’t have to look far for referrals.

■ Family and friends.
Sometimes it is easier to confide in relatives or friends; people you know and trust. But remember, a mentor should be a role-model, somebody that you look up to, who’s experience and business journey inspires and motivates you.

■ Consider complete strangers.
If none of the people in your network seem like a good fit, then perhaps identify leaders in your industry that you respect. Find out as much as you can about your potential mentor and try to reach out to them. Over time, if they seem receptive, you can bring up the idea of a more formal mentoring relationship with more specific parameters and goals.

■ Consider someone in a similar line of business.
Not your direct competition, but someone in a similar line of business can make a very effective mentor.

■ Tap into your industry.
Look to your suppliers, and even relevant trade publications for recommendations.

Mentor vs business coach vs advisor

A good mentor is someone who offers their knowledge, expertise and advice to those with less experience. Since they have faced the same challenges as their mentees, they are more empathetic towards their needs and challenges.

A business coach focuses on specific skills or development goals by breaking them into concrete tasks to be completed within a specified period of time. A good business coach focuses on identifying goals, prioritising them, or identifying challenges and choosing the right path to overcome them. In doing so, business coaches help businesses become more accountable, goal-driven and competitive. They follow a more formal, structured approach to resolve issues, which may include sales targets, marketing strategies, communication skills, team building, leadership, etc.

An advisor or consultant’s role is more formal, and they can be hired for either a long-term or short term project. They are usually experts in their field, called for their professional or technical advice or opinion. They can be used to understand your specific problem and provide a solution. Advisors offer value through giving feedback about specific questions.

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