I've been travelling around Ontario and Alberta the last few leading town-hall workshops for Startup Canada, a new entrepreneur-led organization dedicated to making Canada a more startup-friendly nation. Started by two young entrepreneurs from Ottawa, Startup Canada is looking to determine where it can have the most impact, so it is "crowd-sourcing" its mandate by asking business owners across the country how best it might achieve its goals.
One of the most common and consistent messages being heard from entrepreneurs and the entrepreneur-support community relates to mentorship. I heard so many business owners lament, "If only I had had a mentor when I was starting out." Many also say, "I didn't even have any idea what mentorship was."
Mentorship is certainly a best practice for any entrepreneur. Talking regularly to a more experienced business owner about your most nagging business problems can help you avoid common problems and learn more faster. Some entrepreneurs naturally seek out mentors, but many hang back, shy about asking for help or imposing on the scarce free time of other business owners.
Whatever your excuse, now's the time to drop it. Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. Overcome your shyness, find a mentor and leap-frog your competition.
There are many kinds of mentors to choose from. The ideal mentor is an entrepreneur who's in a similar business, but one that is non-competitive to yours. He or she will usually have a few more years' experience than you have, and should have overcome many of the same challenges you're facing now. The ideal mentor is probably someone whom you can meet with regularly, say every two weeks. To derive maximum benefit from the experience, you should develop a list of questions you want to ask. Email them on a day or two ahead of your meeting, so your mentor can do some advance preparation and provide more thoughtful advice.
But any mentor is better than no mentor. It could be a peer, a supplier, or even a customer. A friend, a former classmate, or a friend of a friend. It could be someone in another city, with whom you only talk by telephone, Skype, email or text.
If you're at a loss finding a mentor, many economic-development agencies, such as your local enterprise centre or Community Futures office, offer mentor-matching programs. If they don't have a formal program, they may know someone who might be interested in helping you anyway.
There are also many peer-mentoring organizations, where you meet once a month (or sometimes more often) with several peers, trading business advice and "war stories" in safe, confidential environments. Among the peer-mentor groups you might look into are Young Presidents Organization, Entrepreneurs Organization, The Executive Committee (TEC), BNI, and similar groups across the country.
I've also met many entrepreneurs over the years who say they have found satisfactory alternatives to mentors. One is the simple act of buying and reading some of the better business books – and having the self-discipline to actually put into practice what you learn. Others adopt "virtual mentors" – real but unwitting role models, from Jack Welch to Steve Jobs, whom they actively study and strive to emulate. One very successful entrepreneur I know actively calls high-level, would-be "mentors," total strangers, cold and out of the blue, to ask for their advice on specific problems. These high-level business leaders don't always call back, but enough of them do that he feels the effort is worth it.
Running your own business is often described as a lonely journey, but it doesn't have to be. With just a little courage and vision, you can reach out and tap advice, experience and new perspectives. And don't think it's just a one-way street. Many mentors say they also derive benefit from the process. Mentoring others forces you to think about the patterns of success in your life, and articulate many habits, techniques and lessons that you've never before put into words. Few mentorships do not become a win-win proposition.
So if you can't find a mentor, reach out and find a younger entrepreneur whom you can mentor instead. I guarantee you'll both benefit from the experience.
Read Rick Spence's last column on idenitifying your sales stars.