By Emma Mee
If you want to do something well, it’s a good idea to learn from someone who has been there and made all the mistakes before; experience is crucial. If you are venturing into the unknown, finding someone with experience who can act as a sounding board and advise on decisions can be invaluable – and that is where a mentor comes in.
We find mentors for business start-ups and entrepreneurs to help them get over specific hurdles or develop strategies for reaching customers and investors. We’ve worked with many good business mentors over the years and know where to match their particular skills and experience with the start-ups that need it the most. Here we have collated responses from both mentees and mentors that we’ve worked with to list this advice on how to get the most out of the first meetings with mentors:
1. Prepare to focus
Consider the time you’ve got for your meeting with your mentor and consider the complexity of the challenges you want to discuss. Scrutiny of business problems and discussing a way forward can take time. Set your objectives for the meeting or discussion points in order of priority, share with the mentor in advance if possible, and agree on the format. Having specific questions or direct requests is much easier on a mentor’s time and level of engagement than being vague or superficial. Approach the conversation professionally and try to stay focused.
2. Know Your Numbers
Your mentor will likely want to know about your turnover, expenditure and any debt. Without it, they won’t understand the scale, stage or direction of your business. You should be familiar with – and have a good understanding of – your financials when you meet. Don’t be cagey or shy about what you know or don’t know; have the information written down in case you need to refer to it and share it openly.
3. Communicate clearly
Ideally your mentor will be prepared and know about your business in advance of the meeting (our programme structures try to provide a suitable brief for both mentees and mentors before they meet). But if you don’t have a clear elevator pitch that enables people to get what you do instantly or aren’t good at describing it, bring materials with you. These could be written, photos or a video on a laptop. A demonstration or prototype really helps too.
4. Keep an open mind
If you’re going to succeed, your business model should stand up to scrutiny, although it’s unlikely you’ll get the kind of aggressive, combative grilling you see on Dragon’s Den. Come with an open mind, consider that challenges from your mentor may help hone your business model and accept suggestions gracefully at the time, even if you later decide you want to go a different way.
5. Follow up
What you get out of your time with a mentor will depend on what you put in, and building a valuable relationship takes time and effort. Following a meeting, send a thank you note summarising what you took away and provide updates on how you are implementing that advice. Your mentor isn’t obligated to take any actions, but if they have generously offered to do so, such as make an introduction, provide them with everything they need swiftly before it goes off the boil.
It’s good to consider why mentors offer their time and help for free. We hear a lot about how they find it fun, inspiring and how it can challenge their own perspective about business. It is very much a two-way learning process and should be built around a good personal relationship. When you find a good fit, a mentor can be a cheerleader, a guru and a critical friend on call when you need it. Who doesn’t need a few of those?
Emma Mee is Programme Manager at Allia Future Business Centre and has been running the recent Future 20 programme.
An original version of this blog was written in conjunction with Expert Impact – who run a free service called the Human Lending Library, which matches social entrepreneurs with successful business people as mentors, to help them solve their business challenges and scale fast.
For more information about finding a mentor for free through the Human Lending Library visit www.expertimpact.com/.