Margaret Hachey knew what her next venture would be when she sold her audio-visual equipment company, Duocom, last year. After six years of working with Step Ahead, a Toronto mentoring program for female entrepreneurs, she decided to start her own mentoring firm.
"It's very lonely at the top: you can't always talk to your family; you don't want to share all of your concerns with your staff. Many entrepreneurs find that having a mentor or coach takes away that loneliness," explains Hachey, who started mentoring informally in 1992.
A business mentor is an experienced entrepreneur who has overcome the roadblocks that can make entrepreneurship a tough path. Through their experience and connections, a mentor can offer ongoing advice and a fresh perspective on your business.
Read: Mentors and Advisors for startup expert Roger Pierce's take on how a seasoned entrepreneur can boost your business.
"There are always ways to improve and accelerate your business," says Larry Wasser, vice-chairman of Toronto-based investment firm Genuity Fund Management and a panelist on BNN's The Pitch, a Dragons' Den-style show. "Getting a mentor at any stage can always help because there's always something that an external advisor, an unbiased party who hasn't worked within the business's walls, can bring." Wasser mentors MBA students as the Entrepreneur in Residence at the Rotman School of Management. He has three decades of experience as the founder of several commercial electronics companies, including Beamscope Canada Inc. and Electronics Boutique (Canada) Inc.
But finding the right mentor is as important as merely having one. How can you find your match?
Wasser suggests crafting an articulated vision of your goals before seeking a mentor: "Entrepreneurs often have a laundry list of things they want to do, but they haven't prioritized the main items that are going to move them from where they are now to the next stage of development."
A referral from your network is the most common way to find a mentor, but there are other avenues you can explore. Hachey suggests joining a peer advisory organization like Women Presidents' Organization or Entrepreneurs' Organization to expand your network and access to potential mentors.
Google can also be a powerful tool when looking for a mentor. Wasser says by broadly searching your industry you can identify a list of candidates and then research each one individually. "Don't necessarily pick the most prominent person in the field," says Wasser. "I've always recommended finding someone who is equally accomplished but who may have more time to give you."
When you do meet a potential mentor, treat it like a first date. First, find out if you and your prospective mentor can relate to one another on a personal level, then try to determine whether or not you are comfortable sharing sensitive business information with this person. Don't be afraid to ask tough questions to ascertain whether this particular mentor can actually help your business, and don't be surprise if they ask you a few tough questions in return. And be transparent about your time requirements and the aspects of your business that you need help with.
"It's a commitment from both sides," says Hachey. "Both people have to be committed to making time to work together and think about your business."