You Need a Mentor.

Ryan Phelan · September 30, 2016 · Short URL:

Here's How to Find the Right One

Throughout the development of any new business, we rely on our personal and industry friends as well as our families to give us advice and keep us honest.

As valuable as that circle of informal as advisers can be, however, you really need a point person who not only is knowledgeable about your business but can also keep you on track and help you avoid the pitfalls that sink other new businesses.

In fact, many business incubators and accelerators encourage you to find a mentor as well as a pool of advisers, none of whom is related to you or knew you in middle school.

Everybody like to tell you what to do with your start-up. You could get whiplash from all the contradictory advice coming your way, right.

In fact, that was the topic at a recent gathering of the Health Wildcatters, a Dallas-based accelerator focused on healthcare and wellness start-ups that I joined recently.

What you need is somebody who has been through everything you're going through now, who can tell you what to do, what not to do, and how to stay on the path from start-up to established business. What you need is a mentor.

How to find your mentor

Your mentor is your lead adviser, the one you listen to before everyone else. But the person you choose has to be someone you trust to guide you appropriately. How do you do it? You know your network, but use the considerations below to find the best candidate:  

1. Partner with someone compatible.

Every company founder knows there's one person who gets you, who is smart in the ways you need them to be smart. This person understands your company and your vision. Your personalities mesh. He or she knows how to motivate and advise you in ways that you will respond to best without telling you only what you want to hear.

One of the biggest mistakes new entrepreneurs make is in seeking advice from everyone they encounter and then putting equal weight on the advice they get from all those sources. That's how you get whiplash. Having a mentor, whose only interest in your business is wanting you to succeed, gives you a voice of reason untainted by ulterior motives.

2. Pick someone who's uber-knowledgeable about your industry and your space in it.

Your mentor should be so familiar with the ins and outs of your business that they can see not just where you're going but also which steps you need to take to stay on track.  

Ideally, this person has years of experience and is a recognized and influential thought leader.

In other words, your mentor can't be a pal who's maybe a year or two ahead of you in the same business. Sure, that person might have a place in your wider circle of advisers, but your mentor needs to have the gravitas that comes with a solid track record of success in your businesses.

3. Pick someone accessible.

Can you meet with this person at least once a week in the critical early stage of your company, when every decision can make a difference?  Your mentor should have an open-door policy or a framework that lets you make contact without fighting your way past layers of gatekeepers.

I give the start-ups I work with access to my online calendar. If they need time with me beyond our regular get-togethers, they can set it up themselves using the times I've made available.

As your company matures, your access, or at least your need for it, might diminish. But that's okay, because you should be on the right path by that point.

One caveat about accessibility: It has its limits. You must respect your mentor's time. Don't expect to be able to demand an immediate meeting even if everything's blowing up. Your mentor doesn't work for you. Work out the limits of accessibility early in your relationship.

4. Look beyond network-provided mentors.

Many incubators and accelerators have a list of potential mentors, but these aren't always the right people. They might not know the peculiarities of your business. Or, your personalities don't mesh. So, look beyond just your incubator's list for the person who will be the best fit for you.

It might be hard to find one person who can advise you capably in all of your business disciplines. In that case, seek out key people in the areas where you need help, whether it's marketing, finance, business development or whatever.

Remember, you are the CEO. Your first allegiance is to your business. Perhaps your incubator has a hard and fast rule that your mentor must come its network. If that's the case, look for another program, one that's less restrictive about your business.

Trust, respect and appreciate your mentors

Mentors are critical in any start-up because they have been where you are and can help you avoid making the same mistakes they did. Some of the start-ups I've helped ignored me because they thought I was wrong. After 17 years in my business, it's hard for me to be wrong about something. I'm not infallible, but I'm smart enough to tell people what to test and what to avoid.

Cultivate your mentors carefully, and thank them. They're giving you their time at far less than the hourly rate that a professional consultant would charge. Choose them carefully. Consider the advantages they give your business, and be grateful you were able to leapfrog to success with their help.



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