Entrepreneur stories: Why every startup needs a mentor

Tom Baragwanath

Published on September 25, 2018


Every thriving startup succeeds on a mixture of innovative vision, specialist knowledge, and above all, perseverance.

One other special ingredient in the mix? Advice and guidance from an experienced mentor.

Having a business mentor can help you turn your good idea into a viable business proposition, and can make all the difference in getting your dreams off the ground.

How? A good mentor can help you define what your startup is (and what it isn’t), as well as helping you tackle the harder questions you need to address for your business to flourish.

Here, we’ll share some stories of successful startups and their experiences with business mentors. We'll also provide advice on how to find a mentor, what you should look for in a mentor, and what you need to bring to the table in a mentoring relationship.

Table of contents:

Now, let's dive in!

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What is a mentor, and why might you need one?

Broadly speaking, a mentor is an experienced and trusted figure providing guidance and personalized advice to someone with less experience.

In the startup world, a mentor is someone with a track record in taking ideas from conception to realisation. A startup mentor has walked the path already, and can give a less experienced entrepreneur an idea of what to expect along the way.

The business world business is full of examples of experienced mentors working with promising individuals to realise their potential. Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, Robert Friedland and Steve Jobs, Larry Summers and Sheryl Sandberg: each exceptional entrepreneur was in need of someone to help them understand how to read the market and put their abilities to work.

In the startup world, having a guiding hand can make all the difference. As productivity consultant Abigail Ireland puts it, “Having a number of trusted advisors and mentors around you is important when testing ideas, cutting through the noise, and trying to stay on track to achieve your goals.”

“It’s so easy to get distracted and chase after every shiny new idea, so having the right people around you serves to keep you grounded and focused. Learning from those who've already walked the path is an excellent way to avoid making costly mistakes.”

More than just a one-way street, business mentoring is a mutually beneficial relationship. The person being mentored gains access to someone with experience and know-how, and the mentor is able to develop trusted partnerships within their business community.

Mentors often learn a lot about themselves through their mentoring, and can draw from the experience to approach their own problems and challenges in new (and better) ways.

How to know you might need a mentor

People from all kinds of backgrounds get into the startup game. Whether you’re a pair of lawyers with a passion for peanut butter, a music PhD building apps in your spare time, or a university drop-out with a puzzling idea, if you’ve got the imagination, ideas and inclination, you can get your startup off the ground in no time.

This accessibility is a big part of what makes the startup world such an interesting and stimulating place to be. But because entrepreneurs come from such diverse backgrounds, they're not always equipped to run a business from day one.

For Tom Passmore and Sophie Walker, co-founders of online waste management platform Dsposal, this was a familiar situation. “Before Dsposal,” says Tom, “we were both office admin workers. Now we were expected to have shareholder meetings, board meetings, and strategy sessions. Then we were expected to understand online marketing, HR, payroll, and insurance.”

With the guidance of business mentors Howard Simms and Fran McArthur, Tom and Sophie were able to fill these gaps and learn how to approach problems. As a result, they developed a clear strategy for their business, which gave them the confidence to press onwards.

When is the right time?

If you think you need a mentor, then it's never too early to start searching. But for seasoned mentor Andy Hall of GC Business Growth Hub, the right time is usually linked to an event or turning point. "Often there is a decision to be made or a change about to happen, and the mentee needs some confidence to move forward quicker.

Neil Robson, co-founder of Rebel Chocolate, sought out a mentor "when I felt ready to move up another level in what I was offering my clients." This was a significant change, and Neil wanted to make sure he was doing the right thing.

We've seen a few examples - and we'll see plenty more - of new entrepreneurs who needed help. But how exactly can a mentor improve your budding business?

What a startup mentor can offer you

You know you need help. But what you expect to gain from a mentor?

Here are a few features that a mentor provides:

1. Knowledge: they simply know things that you don't (yet)

New entrepreneurs should be aware of the gaps in their knowledge. However, being aware of these gaps doesn’t mean being afraid of them. After all, once you're aware of your own particular limitations, you can find the support you need.

The right mentor can be worth their weight in gold here, and can help you to navigate some of the more challenging aspects of the startup world.

This was the case for Rebel Chocolate's Neil Robson. “I left my academic biomedical research position to launch my healthier chocolate company. Having no prior business experience, it was pretty obvious that I needed a mentor - there is so much of the business world that I just didn’t know about. Having an experienced business mentor has been invaluable to the continued development of my company.”

Entrepreneurs don't have to know everything - at least at first. A good advisor can help to fill in areas that your previous experience leave blank.

2. Execution: turn your ideas into action

As a startup entrepreneur, you’ve already got ideas and motivation in spades. Chances are you need someone to help you leverage what you’ve got and put your ideas to work, turning your inspiration into something tangible.

A good mentor can expose you to new ways of thinking and bring a fresh perspective on the challenges you’re facing. More than just lending a sympathetic ear, a mentor can provide helpful advice on growing your business, as well as give you increased confidence.

For Melanie Harwood, founder and CEO of education technology outfit Start-Bee, this was certainly the case. “With our business mentor David Glaser’s guidance and advice, we turned our coffee table enterprise into a fully functioning Education Technology Handwriting Scheme for schools. This would never have happened if it were not for David taking us through each step of the way with a clear and positive approach.”

And this is not just for newbies. Even experienced entrepreneurs with tested businesses can use an outside eye.

As Neil Robson of Rebel Chocolate says, “Anyone can benefit from mentorship. No matter how much an expert we think we are, there is always benefit in learning from others and seeing things from a different perspective.”

3. Growth: learn to actually build your business

As your business continues to grow and you face a different range of challenges, you may find yourself needing different guidance from a mentor.

At the outset you need someone to help guide you through the challenges of establishment, staff recruitment, and basic survival. By year five, however, you need a mentor to help you focus more on growth and expansion.

When it came to starting her coaching and motivational speaking business, Lisa Cybaniak found she needed help in two different stages. “I started out with just a blog. Then I began working with my first coach (a success coach) who helped me set goals and targets, and supported me while I struggled to see how my story could be of benefit to others. We built my website, narrowed my focus on my message, and started booking some speaking gigs, whilst writing blogs to tell my story.”

“Fast forward two years,” says Lisa, “and I found my second coach (a marketing coach), who very specifically helped me take my vision and turn it into properly designed offers and marketing strategies. It was a game-changer for me.”

You may find a mentor who can provide flexible guidance depending on the stage of your business, and who can help take you from milestone to milestone. Alternatively, like Lisa, you can find different mentors to work with you during the different stages of the journey.

4. Trust: knowledge that comes from experience

These days, budding entrepreneurs are spoilt for choice when it comes to getting advice. Everyone has their favourite podcast or YouTube channel promising all the answers they need. Plus, we’ve even heard reports that some people out there are still reading books.

In fact, as Tom Passmore of Dsposal says, the huge amount of advice online can become a rabbit hole. “The list kept growing,” he says, “because of our ‘need’ to try and understand it all. We kept reading entrepreneur articles, listening to podcasts and watching YouTube videos but getting more and more overwhelmed by the enormity of everything."

There’s only so much value you can get from absorbing content before you need a flesh and blood human to listen and bounce ideas around. Once your mentor gets to know your skills, talents and vision, they can help you understand your business, solving problems you didn’t even realise existed.

As productivity consultant Abigail Ireland puts it, “there is always something to learn, and each mentor has unique qualities that are impressive and inspirational - whether from a business or personality perspective.”

5. Truth: you’ve got enough cheerleaders

There’s no-one quite like friends and family for giving you that much-needed shot of enthusiasm. Because they (ideally) love you and care for you, they’ll always be there to build you up. But this can make them unlikely to ask some of the harder questions.

Will anyone in your Tuesday night wine club be brave enough to tell you your game changing idea probably won’t work? Will Uncle Rick be kind enough to point out that somebody already invented the edible Popsicle stick?

As Tom Passmore of Dsposal says, this process can be tough, but is critical to cracking the harder questions. “Being mentored is hard,” he says. “You have to admit to yourself that you don’t really know what you are doing and that you need help. All the bravado has to be left at the door.”

“You sit opposite somebody that is giving up their time to listen to you, help you and guide you. You have to fully engage with it and it is exhausting.”

And while the positivity of friends and family is always appreciated, it doesn’t always help to point someone in the right direction. “Our peers are great cheerleaders, but not great coaches.”

A good mentor will not only bring their skills and experience to bear on the tough issues facing your startup; a good mentor can also approach your problems and questions without any emotional baggage, and can help you to face of the harder truths.

Again, here’s Tom Passmore of Dsposal: “My mentor really drilled down on the why. Why does Dsposal need to exist? Why does it have to be you? Why will people use it? Why hasn’t it been done already? These are tough questions to answer, and over months I answered them, and they solidified in my head why we are doing this.”

On the flip side, having a mentor can also save your friends and family from having to hear about your startup every five minutes.

As Kate Tompsett of British-made gift shop Happy & Glorious says, “Working with my coach Will Aylward helps me to focus on priorities, and makes me accountable for my business decisions. He helps me to break down seemingly insurmountable tasks, boosts my confidence when I am struggling, and allows me to ramble on about my beloved business in a way that family and friends would find tedious!”

With the right mentor at your side, you’ll have access to a wealth of valuable skills and experience to help you through the tougher decisions. What’s more, you won’t have to bug friends and family quite so often.

What to look for in a mentor

Like everything in the startup world, the question of how to find a mentor involves balancing a number of competing considerations. A mentor needs to have the complementary skills and experience to help the person being mentored, as well as having the kind of personality that will jell with theirs.

Remember, a mentorship is ideally a long-term relationship - you want to find someone you’d still want to talk to on a weekly (if not daily) basis at year five.

You need someone focused on helping you work towards identifiable and measurable improvements, and someone who is going to give you the space you need to learn things for yourself as opposed to simply spoon-feeding their ready-made solutions.

You also want someone who can commit to a certain amount of time and effort.

Melanie Harwood of Start-Bee can back this up. “I had an incredible business mentor,” she says. “David Glaser was only supposed to mentor us for six months, but we still speak on an almost daily basis more than three years after we first met. He completely changed the way we run our business, our product delivery, everything, and his advice was invaluable.”

He changed my life and my business completely!”

In a mentoring relationship, it is important for both parties to have the trust and confidence to express themselves freely.

As Karen Liebenguth of mindful coaching business Green Space Coaching says, “it's important that you can not only learn from them but also be able to share your thoughts, ideas and concerns. I often find that my conversations and explorations with my mentor are inspired by what clients bring to coaching or mindfulness sessions. I am constantly learning from both my clients and my mentor.”

Remember, as a startup founder, you don’t need to limit yourself to just one mentor; you can benefit from a mentoring relationship with multiple mentors, providing your (and their) schedule permits this, and providing you have the energy to commit.

How to find the right business advice

All this talk of mentorship is great, but is it accessible to everyone? Or do you need to get lucky and have a mentor fall in your lap?

The good news is there are definitely mentors out there. Finding a mentor for your startup can be as simple as attending networking events and small business gatherings, and asking others about their experience. Social media can also be helpful here too; with LinkedIn and Twitter you can find potential candidates based on your industry and/or demographic area.

Alternatively, you can ask friends and family if they know of any potential mentors in your industry. You never know until you ask - chances are your network of contacts is broader and deeper than you think!

Experienced mentor Andy Hall explains the process: "First, identify if it's a mentor you need or an advisor, consultant, coach etc. I always recommend looking at your own circles and asking 'Do I know someone who has been through this?'"

"If not reach out to a group or even an organisation who can match voluntary mentors to entrepreneurs. Like the GC Business Growth Hub."

Tracey-Jane Hughes found help through Boost Lancashire. "I had to ask a few times to get on the list, but once on, they matched me with an experienced business owner who is skilled in the area I needed help with to grow my business at this stage."

Some entrepreneurs actually prefer to pay for support. "I know I feel much more benefit when I have parted with my cash as I am typically much more emotionally invested," explains Carrie Eddins of Return On Connection. She choose to pay for help from Sarah and Kevin Arrow.

Whether you choose to pay for help or seek free advice, there are experts and networks near you that can lend a hand.

Conclusion: you’re climbing Everest - get a sherpa

The journey to making your startup a viable business can be a heck of a climb. Though the rewards may be enticing, the cliff edges sure are steep.

A good mentor can not only help you to define the value proposition of your business, but can support you from early establishment through to consolidation and growth. With the right mentor, you’ll be able to find quick solutions to the harder problems, saving yourself time, stress, and money.

No matter where you are in the startup journey, give yourself the best shot at success - find a mentor to walk alongside you and share their advice and experience. Not only will you have a sympathetic ear to listen to your tough problems, but you’ll be able to draw from a broader reserve of knowledge and expertise to put your ideas to work.

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