Five steps to finding the perfect mentor

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Running a business can be a lonely task, but an experienced confidant can help you thrive

There is a wealth of valuable knowledge out there that can help you over hurdles and through the darkest days as a small business owner. More entrepreneurs should consider taking time out and asking advice.

Eleven years ago, I invited eight entrepreneurs to a dinner where we spoke frankly about the challenges we were facing in our various ventures. The discussions were so fruitful that we met again a month later, and again a month after that. This swiftly became The Supper Club, which now has 350 members across the UK, attending more than 200 similar events per year where they can talk about their challenges, share “warts and all” stories and learn best practice.

There are of course, myriad of ways to get advice, from a chat over a coffee, to mentoring, to formal peer-group sessions. In all cases, the greatest value is often in taking a step back and seeing your business through someone else’s eyes. It can be as simple as realising that someone else has faced the same challenges as you.

Finding an individual you trust and admire as a mentor could be a valuable first step and you’d be surprised at how many entrepreneurs are willing to offer their time. When I co-founded StartUp Britain in 2011, we asked Supper Club members if they would be willing to mentor startup businesses.

We were overwhelmed with entrepreneurs offering time, from 10 to 20 hours, free of charge. One of the mentees was Zain Jaffer (originally mentored by me when he was at university), who needed someone with industry-specific experience to advise as he grew his app-discovery platform, Vungle. He found one in Chris Ash, a Supper Club member who runs a gaming firm. Jaffer later moved from his tiny London office to San Francisco to join a business accelerator. He has since raised more than $25m in funding, employs 70 people and has just launched Vungle in China: by age 26.

I’m not claiming this is down to mentoring alone, but it shows how growth can be unlocked if you have a positive attitude towards seeking out knowledge from those with experience.
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Cecile Reinaud, founder of maternity-wear label Séraphine, found her mentor in Tamara Hill-Norton, the founder of sportswear brand Sweaty Betty. Cecile’s business has since flourished and she says her relationship with Tamara supported that growth. As Cecile’s business has caught up with Tamara’s, the relationship has evolved to one based on collaboration and shared knowledge.

So what makes a good mentor? A good mentor/mentee relationship is often down to well-suited personalities, but any good advisor will leave their ego to one side and share experiences specific to your challenges. Ultimately, you want a mentor who listens to you, rather than simply dispenses advice.

There are no hard-and-fast rules, but if you’re starting from scratch, there are some things to keep in mind.
Five steps to finding your mentor

Do your research

Seek out someone who can really add value to your business, rather than the most impressive name. You will get more long-term value out of a relationship with someone who understands your challenges.

Don’t ask to be mentored

Let it grow organically. Set up a meeting with a potential mentor but don’t go in with a formal request to be mentored. It sounds like too much of a commitment.

Respect their time

If you’re asking an entrepreneur for time, remember that it will be limited. Come to meetings prepared and get your elevator pitch down to two minutes or less. If someone has agreed to meet you for 30 minutes don’t keep him or her for 45.

Be open

You will only get value out of the relationship if you are willing to talk about every part of your business transparently. Keep no bones in the cupboard.

Take stock

Not every relationship works. If a mentor doesn’t feel he or she is offering valuable advice, they should tell you. Similarly, if you feel you aren’t getting what you need, don’t be afraid to walk away.

Once you’ve found your mentor, you have to be prepared to put sound advice into action. Trust your instinct, and don’t blindly follow the advice of your mentor or peers but remember that a good idea can easily be wasted. It often takes guts to do something that didn’t fit with your original plan.