For most people, recalling the early days of their first enterprise is likely to conjure up all manner of contradictory feelings. It’s undeniably an exciting time; you have a fresh, bright idea and are packed full of enthusiasm for the journey ahead of you. But, equally, entering the market with no knowledge or experience of running a business can make it a rather daunting prospect. Therefore, sometimes the thought of having someone in your corner who has weathered a few storms can be a very appealing prospect.
Experienced entrepreneurs mentor others for a number of reasons. “One of the main reasons is probably the fact that they’ve actually gone through the pain that the fledgling enterprises have gone through – they know what it’s like,” explains Ruth Lowbridge, executive chair at Small Firms Enterprise Development Initiative (SFEDI). Angel investor and mentor Divyang Mistry adds that there’s also an important feel-good factor. “I enjoy the enthusiasm behind someone’s idea and trying to make it viable,” he says. “I find it just quite an exciting creative process.”
Founder of This Girl Means Business – a publication dedicated to championing female entrepreneurs – and a mentor in her own right, Carrie Green is no stranger to this thrill, but she can still remember what her first few steps as an entrepreneur were like. “Was I prepared for it?” she says. “No. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.” Setting up your first business is full of challenges and expecting oneself to be entirely prepared from the off is simply unrealistic. “I think there are a million and one things that you’re supposed to know but the truth is you don’t. You can’t have all the answers.”
Mentors are there to plug this knowledge gap, imparting their experience and helping new entrepreneurs navigate their way through the pitfalls of their first enterprise. Often the best way to view mentors is seeing them as trusted advisors. Green recalls the mentoring session she received with Lord Billimoria, the co-founder and chair of Cobra Beer, after winning MADE: The Change Makers 2012. One of the key pieces of expertise he provided was the importance of setting up an advisory board of people with a variety of skills. “It’s about putting together people who are more successful than you are, who can give you advice,” she says. “I think that’s a great thing that anyone in business can do.”
Entrepreneur Ruth Amos not only invented her product the StairSteady – an aide to help people with mobility problems safely climb the stairs – as a part of her GCSEs but she was also the first winner of the Women of the Future’s ‘Young Star’ award and the youngest person ever to have featured on Management Today’s list of ‘35 Women Under 35’. Developing her business at this young age she was hardly lacking in enthusiasm, but she still feels that without a mentor it would have been much more difficult to make a success of her enterprise. “Without a mentor or somebody talking to me about what business is like I wouldn’t have had a clue where to start.”
Fortunately, when she was prototyping her product, her school put her in touch with Reg Copeland, an experienced designer, manufacturer and inventor, which was the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship. He assisted her with everything from patent applications to registering her enterprise as a commercial business. “He didn’t necessarily want to make any money from it,” she says. “I don’t think he ever saw himself in the mentoring role. He just wanted to help.”
It really is worth considering the mentoring relationship as just that: a relationship. And this means a personal connection between mentor and mentee can be hugely important. “I’m not all about entrepreneurs and business owners; mothers, fathers, hard working citizens are my ideal client,” says professional business coach and mentor Mark Sephton. For him it’s not necessarily about experience, but the person behind the business idea. “I want to work with those that are free spirited, they want to blaze new trails, develop themselves and grow.” He feels one of the most important factors in this relationship is trust. “It’s a great privilege for someone to trust and respect me with their life,” he says. “I’m a huge believer that people buy from an individual or company because they either like, know or trust you.”
Sometimes the relationship can be like that between a parent and child; a good parent gives their child everything they need to make the right decisions without living their lives for them. “In a couple of businesses I’ve seen things not going quite right and I’d advise the person and say: ‘Look I don’t think this particular technology is going to work out,’” says Mistry. But he’s keen to stress that it’s not about telling people what they should do or making decisions on their behalf. “Usually as long as you just keep an eye on it, it can be a learning experience,” he says. “Founders of businesses can be really determined and they often find a way of making it work that really surprises me.”
With time, the relationship can grow and become much more established. As SFEDI’s Lowbridge explains: “Often what happens is that people will continue a relationship with a mentor but that relationship may change and, for example, sometimes a mentor can become a non-exec board member.” This was certainly the case with Amos’s mentor Copeland; he’s very much become a key part of her business. “Reg faced the challenges along with me and he became an executive director,” she says.
Whilst it’s important to have someone by your side during these troubling times, as Amos’s case suggests, it really is important to have long-term advice during the good times as well as the bad. “I think this is a culture change in thinking because often advice is sought when something negative is happening to a business,” comments Lowbridge. It’s often easy in business to get carried along by the momentum of things and when things are positive in an entrepreneurial business it’s harder to ask yourself probing questions about the decisions you’re making. “If you have got that access to a mentor they’re the critical friend that can then pull you back a bit.”
Throughout all of this it might be tempting to see the mentoring relationship as rather one-sided, as though only the mentee learns from the experience, but in actuality it can often help a mentor consolidate their own knowledge. “If I take my own experiences, I’ve actually learnt a lot through speaking with people who were just starting,” remarks Lowbridge. “It takes you back to basics and you start to think about some of the reasons why you set off along that path.” Green also believes this is a huge added benefit of mentoring. She explains: “When I have my meetings with the person I mentor from the Prince’s Trust, because I’m sat there giving her advice, it’s like hearing it all over again.”
Ultimately, picking up additional skills and knowledge can have huge ramifications for your business, and whether someone is just starting out or they have 30 years of industry experience it’s never too late to benefit from someone else’s perspective. As Sephton concludes: “We’re all a work in progress. You never actually graduate: it’s a lifetime pilgrimage so become a lover of learning.”