5 Points on the Importance of Mentors for Entrepreneurs

Mentoring ensures that knowledge, experience, and hard-won insight transfers from one person to another through personal interaction over time. While your own great ideas are essential to your new business, with an experienced mentor at your side, you will have one of the most powerful assets any new businessperson can ever have: someone invested in you and your success. Here are a few key points on the vital role a good mentor can play in the success of an emerging entrepreneur, along with advice on choosing mentors wisely.

1. What characteristics does a good mentor possess?

Ideally, a mentor will not so much give advice as coach. An ideal mentor is someone actively involved in the direction of his or her own successful business. A good mentor should also be accessible — not all of the time, but he or she should be able to devote enough time to assisting you in truly broadening and deepening your understanding in ways you could not have done for yourself.

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Your mentor’s communication style should be direct but supportive. He or she should have the ability to help you see problems and challenges before they happen, and to correct course in your own and your company’s performance early. A mentor should be able to supply vital constructive criticism and a well-rounded, objective point of view.

Look for chemistry in the mentor-mentee relationship: some experts even advise looking outside your own industry until you find the right match. Don’t seek friendship from a mentor, but rather depth of knowledge and character. Look for someone you can trust, who will remain candid yet supportive.

2. What can a mentor help you accomplish?

Your mentor can help you stay focused on your goals and hold you accountable to your vision for your company. A good mentor can help a fledgling entrepreneur think through strategies, crunch numbers, and create a business or marketing plan. His or her guidance can get you through rough times when your self-confidence may be waning, and show you new perspectives and pathways to success.

A well-connected mentor can also point you in the right direction for obtaining start-up funds, seed money, and operating capital, and can introduce you to a wider network of contacts. Additionally, a mentor may help you develop ideas in practical ways beyond those your experience can currently afford. And a good mentor will point out ways to make positive alterations that are responsive to the changes you experience as your plans unfold.

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Many start-up founders observe that it’s preferable to make a “good” decision early in the process of unfolding your company, rather than waiting until you have all the knowledge and resources necessary to make a flawless one later. This is one of the key areas where a mentor’s greater insights and more extensive experience will come in particularly handy.

Your mentor will look for early opportunities to help you achieve a “win,” so that your confidence builds up to face subsequent challenges. He or she may be able to spot trouble long before you do, and can spur you on to further success through praise and celebration of your accomplishments.

3. How can you find the right mentor?

You should select a mentor carefully. Make sure to understand exactly what you want your mentor to do. Do you need networking opportunities, introductions to great contacts, or advice on evaluating markets or developing your product? Different individuals will bring different sets of skills and varied perspectives to any mentoring experience, so you will need to know what your “ask” is.

Create a checklist of skills and attributes you know you need your mentor to have. And remember that your needs as a mentee will likely shift over time — there’s no rule that says you only have to have one mentor for your entire entrepreneurial life. Start networking early to identify who your likely mentors may be. You’ll want people with lots of practical experience, and with a dedication to mentoring newer entrepreneurs.

Listen carefully to what people say and how they say it. You want to pick a mentor who can offer substance and thoughtfulness, not just style and talk. By cultivating your own skill in active listening, you can elicit the information that will help you choose the best mentor for a particular project.

There is no need to behave as if you know everything already. Confidence in yourself and your company is essential, but over-confidence can result in alienating the very people who would be able and willing to help you. Be open to new ideas and perspectives from potential mentors, even if they do not match your own.

4. Where should you look for mentors?

You can try local business and start-up networking groups as well as the leadership of community non-profit organizations to find mentors. Offer to work an event promoted by one of these groups, which can place you in proximity to industry leaders. Find a few people who are available to have brief meetings with you and see if you click with any of them as mentors.

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It also doesn’t hurt to aim for the top. A number of well-known and highly experienced entrepreneurs welcome the chance to mentor someone they don’t know, if that person offers a promising idea and a strong presentation. You might try sending an email directly or asking for an introduction through mutual contacts.

Business incubators and accelerators are also great places to frequent if you want to establish connections with entrepreneurs at all levels of experience. Also try Chamber of Commerce meetings, local business roundtables, social media communities, and industry conferences.

5. How can you get the most out of a mentoring experience?

Be flexible enough to appreciate the many forms mentoring can take. You might read a book or watch a video by a well-known and successful entrepreneur, learning from him or her even if you will never meet.

You might be lucky enough to get an hour or two over lunch or dinner with a high-level executive, rather than a long-term mentoring partnership. Be open to accepting whatever time this person can give you, and be prepared to take notes for future reference.

After you’ve benefitted from the help of a mentor, show appreciation for his or her contributions to making your business a success. Finally, make sure to pay the experience forward by being receptive to mentoring other new entrepreneurs when it’s your turn.