Learning From the Best

Objective Wisdom

That third-party objectivity is one of the greatest gifts of being mentored, notes Huntley. "Having a mentor, a third party, look at [a situation], you can get the truth," she says. Simply because the mentor is outside the cloud of confusion you may find yourself in, he or she can offer sound advice that you may not have considered.

Seth Goldman found that to be especially true with his tea business, Honest Tea. Founded in 1998, this Bethesda, Maryland, entrepreneur was faced with some difficult decisions in the course of his business. And it was the wisdom of his mentor, Gary Hirshberg, the CEO of Stonyfield Yogurt, that helped him through.

Since both companies are in the natural foods sector, the two entrepreneurs had a link. Goldman, 36, remembers seeing Hirshberg at various conferences. Hirshberg's company was so successful that he was often a speaker at these events, and Goldman paid attention to his lectures. "Not long after I started my business, I went to a weekend crash course on entrepreneurship with successful entrepreneurs speaking," says Goldman. "[There,] I got to first sit down with [Hirshberg]."

The two established such a rapport that Goldman felt comfortable asking the experienced entrepreneur's advice on a specific investment. Unsolicited, someone wanted to invest $5 million in Honest Tea, and Goldman was tempted to take the offer. "He said, 'Don't take more than you need,' " recalls Goldman. "Don't take the easy money."

Hirshberg urged Goldman to hold out for a deal that was better suited to his mission-one that would allow him to retain control over Honest Tea and its future. So he didn't take the $5 million from that investor-instead, he waited about a year and ended up getting about $1 million in investment capital from a more desirable avenue: Hirshberg himself. With the capital infusion and the continued support and advice of Hirshberg, Honest Tea expects sales of $5.6 million this year.

Finding your perfect mentor takes time, but it's worth it to go about your search sensibly. Research your industry, find businesses you admire, and hook up with them. Seek out a professional business coach, or join a small-business network to meet people who can share their knowledge with you. Turn to colleges and universities-they're always full of wise professors who love to see students succeed.

However you get one, a mentor is one of the best ways to get an unofficial business education. They're teachers, advisors and support groups, all in one.

How to Be Mentored

It's all well and good what mentors can do for you and your business, but don't forget that you, the one being mentored, have some responsibility for making the relationship work. First, don't idolize your mentor or put him or her on a pedestal. Leadership coach Kathi Huntley explains how her mentor protects against this peril: "If it ever got to where he felt that I was taking everything he says as gospel and wasn't thinking for myself, he would immediately say, 'Forget this-we can't do this.'"

Second, you've got to let yourself be coached. Many entrepreneurs, used to their own way, find it difficult to open themselves up to criticism and instruction, says Huntley. The only way to really gain from a mentor relationship is to humble yourself and remember you still have a lot to learn. Says Huntley, "To an entrepreneur who has this 'I'm right' [mentality], I would recommend that they consider how they got there, who helped them get there and how it would be if there was no one around to share it with."

That said, you still have to give yourself the freedom to disagree with your mentor. While you want to listen to their suggestions, you'll ultimately have to make the decisions for yourself. "That's one unique thing with [my mentors]-I'm not afraid to speak my mind," says Matt Springfield, founder of Dallas-based information security firm Elliptix LLC. "If there's something I don't agree with, I'll [say it]."

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This article was originally published in the August 2002 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Learning From the Best.

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