Having a mentor in the start up journey
It’s been two years since I decided to start nTrai.com and since then there has no doubt been some extremely interesting times. The part I want to focus on today is having a mentor during the journey.
I was selected as one of the Future Leaders in the Irish International Business Network (IIBN) programme. As part of the process you are matched with a mentor. I was matched with Christopher Byrne. Christopher was a founding member of cashbook.com and sold this for $60 million. He is now co-founder of SENSORPRO.net a messaging and feedback company that works with some of the largest brands in the world. Check out what Ben and Jerry’s think of working with them here.
I want to highlight the benefits of having a mentor of this calibre and why it is a vital step for all founders. Before I start I’d like to thank the IIBN for the opportunity and Chris for his continued support of nTrai and a mentor to me.
The following are three reasons why I believe it is vital for every start-up founder to have a mentor.
- Been there, done that, earned the tshirt
What you’re going through is nothing new! At times as a founder of a start-up you think you have it the toughest. The late nights, early mornings, never ending to do lists, low bank account balance, constant worrying, constant thinking, losing focus, lots of work, but little money..
Guess what? Every successful person has gone through these days! Having followed the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the year for the last number of years I have heard the stories, read their books and they have all had the doubts, the fears, but they have all come through stronger. It’s the coming through stronger that is key and the part we must celebrate.
Chris has shown me through his own stories that the struggle is part of the journey, but not the enjoyable part and certainly not the part to celebrate.
Chris told me that it is part of the journey, but why would we celebrate it? He shared a story of a time where he had to sell his car to pay for the groceries. He said it sucked, it was part of the journey, but not a part he celebrates. It’s all about finding the process that works and celebrating this, not celebrating the failures.
He told me this story on our second session. I was going through one of the days when the doubts start to creep into your head. Another month had come and gone where we didn't break even. More savings get swallowed up, more pride bruised and confidence at an all time low. Am I good enough? What am I doing wrong? How can I keep going? Am I being stupid? Maybe I should quit, companies will like that I tried and I’ll get a good salary? I remember asking Chris, when do you know it’s time to quit and move on? His answer was refreshing and daunting — you never quit. Keep going until it works. I came off the phone feeling better, uplifted and ready to rock on. After the call I was thinking how athletics and sport is like this. I looked back at the day I won the National Under 23 100m Championships in a new P.B. of 10:78 seconds. That day I finished 3rd in my heat, in one of my slowest times. My aim for the year was to win the championships, but now it was looking very unlikely. Could I possibly do it? All logic would say no. I did it! I wanted to bring this steel to my business attitude.
When going through a tough time it’s great to have a mentor with you. Having the encouraging and reassuring voice helps you to keep going and to fight on. Hearing the stories of when they went through a similar time can really help. This brings me to my next point..
Speaking with someone who has achieved what it is you are looking to do is always helpful. It’s something that has worked well for me in the past. As a young sprinter I found it very beneficial to chat with older more accomplished sprinters like Olympians Gary Ryan and Tom Comyns. They helped me to reach some of my athletic goals. By voicing my aims to them, they made them sound easy. I wanted to be a National Under 23 Champion and run sub 7 seconds for the 60m. They helped me with training and nutrition, and being coached by Hayley and Drew Harrison, the coaches that coached them to the Olympics, I began to have greater belief in my ability.
It’s the same concept in business. Chris has sold his company for $60 million. Now all of a sudden wanting to become a millionaire through nTrai isn’t such a crazy thing, in fact it even seems easy… at times. The main thing to know is that it is possible, very possible.
I really enjoyed the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year slogan from 2013 — If not you? Who? If not now? When? Seeing entrepreneurs in the competition that weren't much older than me, and seeing that slogan, I began to realise it’s a matter of getting out there and giving it a shot. Back myself!
It’s not a case of if it’s possible — I know it is, it’s been done before and it’ll be done again. It’s a case of finding the method of how I can achieve it. Bringing something to the table that I can do better than anybody else. Find the niche and excel.
So, now I have the belief that I can do it, but not every idea I think that will work does and some I undervalue. At the Limerick launch of the Entrepreneur of the Year 2014 I heard Ed Harty from Dairy Master speak. He was asked if he could change anything from the past what would it be. He said he wouldn’t change very much, but perhaps he’d do it a little quicker. A mentor can certainly help with this and here is how.
It’s great to have the belief, but you need to back this with actions and focus on the process of getting to the end goal. As an entrepreneur one is constantly thinking of ways to generate more business, perform better than competitors, ensure clients stay with you for next year and in general, make everything better. Sometimes we come up with great ideas and other times we come up with.. less than great ideas.
Being able to discuss these ideas with a mentor and hear genuine feedback is great. It’s not from someone who is going to agree with you to keep you happy, it’s real feedback that you can take or leave. You’re hearing it from someone with no agenda other than to help you achieve your goal. It’s a fantastic opportunity.
This conversation can bring you back to what’s important and going to benefit your business on that day. From one of the first calls with Chris I now have 3 things on my to do list each day. By maintaining this focus I can actually get things done.
The double edged sword of running your own business is the following — You have no boss! Now, don’t get me wrong, I hate having a boss! However, it does have its advantages. Having a boss means less ownership of the task; you can leave work behind when you leave the office.
Not having a boss means you have to decide the direction and how hard you’re going to push, and the harder you push, the more you hope you’re pushing in the right direction. When you have clients it becomes a little easier as you have to fulfil on your commitments. Having a monthly call with your mentor means you have a 4 week block where you better have moved things along. It’s not for your mentors sake, but your own. It gives you a target, a goal and it keeps you accountable. You don’t want to drift and watch time slip by. Now, Chris does not put this pressure on, but I like to use the call for this reason. I keep track of the notes with Chris and I want to have items progressed by the next time we talk.
Chris has helped me keep focused on the daily activities with the three items on the to do list. Another great item that has helped me is the 100 day plan. At the start of the year SENSORPRO provided a 100 day plan to start the year. Every 10 days I have an item I want to have achieved and I’m using this to measure myself by. It’s helped me keep the focus on the bigger picture while getting certain items done each day.
So, in short, having a mentor gives you the following:
· Access to a person who has conquered the challenge you’re facing.
· They talk with a confidence and authority on being successful and help you to believe you can too.
· They keep you focused on the task.
Word of warning — There is no magic wand.
During another IIBN event, Jamie Heaslip spoke about having mentors in rugby. He warned that it is very helpful, but they won’t do the work for you. It’s the same in business. Having a mentor can point you in the right direction, give you certain techniques, strategies and even introductions that will help you. They will not do the work for you. They have enough on their own plate and are already taking time to help you develop. You have to bring energy and enthusiasm that will keep you driving forward to get the work done and achieve your goals. There are no short cuts, but they can stop you from taking the longer route!
Being part of the IIBN Future Leaders programme has helped me hugely. I’m looking forward to see how the rest of the process develops and I hope to someday be in a position to pay the favour forward and help Ireland’s thriving entrepreneurial spirit develop further.