What causes startups and businesses to fail? I contend that it is not the quality of their product or service or the intellectual property that protects it, but rather the entrepreneur’s inability to leverage their power to secure and capitalize on commercial opportunities. A prerequisite and mandatory step to leverage your power is to evolve, develop yourself, and mature as an entrepreneur: self-assess, understand your capacity and learn from experiences both inside and outside of your business.
Almost every successful entrepreneur can recognize a few key mentors and advisors who have influenced their journey and helped them along the way. If you have raised equity funding, you may benefit from the guidance and mentoring that investors provide (yes, qualified investors don’t just write a check!). After all, it does take a village to raise an entrepreneur!
Both mentors and advisors are an important part of the entrepreneurial journey, and although the terms are being used interchangeably, it is important that you understand the difference so you can benefit the most from their guidance.
A mentor is someone who will support you and encourage you to develop your skills and knowledge as the leader of your company to maximize your business potential and achievements. They have some entrepreneurial experience and a general business acumen. They can be close friends, professional acquaintances or come from organized resources group like Score or the Business Mentor Team. Mentors are most beneficial in the ideation and early stage of a business. Why? Because their main focus is you as your business results are in direct relation to your development and maturity as an entrepreneur. More often than not, it takes an outsider’s perspective to help you broaden yours. There is typically no financial upside for mentors. A mentor just wants to see you succeed! Like a barrel of monkeys, someone pulls you up and you keep a hand down to pull the next woman up (or guy *smile*).
What does a great mentor sound like?
- Easy to talk to
- Doesn’t shy away from constructive disagreement
- Asks more questions to challenge your assumptions
- Asks pointed questions to challenge your thought process
- Provides you with some stepping-stones here and there but let you reach your own conclusions
- Debriefs you on past experiences and results to help you integrate ‘lessons learned’
Advisors can also be friends and professional acquaintances; however, their main focus is your company. You have now matured as a leader and built up entrepreneurial grit. These advisors concentrate their efforts and are experts in their fields.
In some way, shape or form they will augment your management team’s skill sets. Some will possess experience and expertise in the areas of business that your team lacks. Some will have a valuable Rolodex that will be helpful to your operation, strategy or marketing efforts. Others will challenge your approach to the market or business model. Relationship with an advisor is somewhat more formal in the sense that they will participate consistently and actively in your company’s life, bridging the gaps within your management team and covering the areas of business where you have the most needs.
A great advisor will make a huge and lasting positive impact on your business. They are vested professionals with terrific experience and insights to help your company grow and avoid the worst pitfalls. They are in high-demand with plenty on their plate already. Why should they give their time and energy to your cause for free? Yes, advisors are paid: in cash, in stock options or any combination thereof.
What does a great advisor sounds like?
- Is bullish on your product/service, market and team
- Possesses tremendous depth of expertise on very specific segments
- Enjoys a large network of influence
- Stays away from boilerplate strategies
- Pushes you as much as they push themselves
A few things to keep in mind
- A mentor or an advisor is not a name to collect to look good. By definition, they are here to help you move your needle.
- A mentor or an advisor is not an employee. Do not diminish their value by giving them assignments or expect them to be your sales person.
- Set the expectations of what you need from your mentors or advisors prior to recruiting them. Outline personal and areas of business where you need the most help and the gaps in your management team.
When seeking mentors or advisors, devote some time to understand who they are, their motivation and how their skill sets and experience will aid you in your success. They do not necessarily have to have experience in your product/service or industry; however, the depth of their knowledge is such that they understand the underlying principles of business, how they apply to your circumstances and exercise their talent by the creativity of the solution they come up with. Like any other profession, you will encounter all levels and qualities of mentors and advisors. When engaging with friends, make sure not to pick only the ones that always agree with you or always tell you what you want to hear. As Ezra Pound’s quote goes “When two men in business always agree, one of them is unnecessary”. An easy way around that is by seeking a woman mentor or advisor. I promise you we won’t agree all the time! *smile*
I have noticed that newbies often fall for confident-suit-wearing men as soon as they offer to serve as mentor/advisor without asking at minimum some very pragmatic questions. Not only will they offer you great insights on the person you will engage intimately with but they will help you weed out the ego-driven candidates.
- Have you mentored/advised before?
- What do you feel makes you a great mentor/advisor?
- With what level of business are you comfortable with?
- What type of experience do you have in my field?
- What knowledge/experience/skill set do you possess that will help me advance?
- What qualities are you looking for in a mentee to build a successful relationship?
- Why are you interested in mentoring/advising me?
Like any other new professional arrangement, even if engaging with friends, clearly frame your expectations beforehand and take the time to ‘date’ before getting into a more formal relationship.
Author: Carine Dieudé, Partner, Director of Strategy, Entrepreneurship Aficionado – Growth and exit strategies, systems and operations, for startup, small and medium-sized businesses.
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