Mentors: A Young Entrepreneur's Secret Weapon
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You need a good idea. Startup cash can make a real difference. Business experience and savvy also help, of course. But to take advantage of the most powerful weapon an entrepreneur can have, find a mentor.
A good mentor helps you think through a business idea, suggests ways to generate that startup capital and provides the experience and savvy you’re missing. You’ll get praise when you deserve it and a heads-up when trouble comes -- probably long before you would have noticed it yourself.
My grandfather who owned a memorabilia and antique shop in Vancouver, British Columbia, was a natural entrepreneur. He helped my brother Matthew and me launch our first successful venture: selling toy airplanes at a local festival when we were just seven and eight years old. With his help, we developed just the right marketing strategy -- putting on a show with the planes that created excitement and a "wow" impact. We sold out of planes in just two hours.
Our first mentor was someone whom we trusted and who cared about our success. He had the knowledge and skills to keep us focused, and he knew a small early success would spur us on to more entrepreneurial attempts. Looking back, I realize he really engineered our first foray into business to build our confidence and help us understand what it’s like to work for ourselves. Even now, nearly 30 years later, Matthew and I find ourselves remembering his advice when we’re planning or making decisions.
Although few entrepreneurs are fortunate enough to have a keen mentor in the family, it is possible to find one or two. Here are eight tips to getting the right mentor -- or group of mentors -- for you:
- Determine your needs. Keeping in mind that your mentoring needs will shift as you start and build your business, take the time to determine exactly what kind of mentor you want now. Are you having trouble with the numbers, understanding your market or operations? Are you ready to ramp up production or still playing with concepts? Build a wish list for your mentor -- laying out what skills and support you need to get to the next step.
- Take time to network. Networking isn't just important for finding customers. It’s also vital for finding a mentor. Who do you want helping you? Someone who sits in an office and thinks connecting with the business community means reading a couple of magazines a month? No, you want someone who’s out there, knows the market and can point you in the right direction.
- Listen more, talk less. Given your youthful enthusiasm for entrepreneurship, it may be hard to stay silent. But to find a mentor, you need to listen -- a lot. Pay attention and you‘ll be able to separate the smart potential mentors from those who just use all the right words.
- Be "mentorable." If you come off as someone who knows everything -- or thinks you do -- many people will back away. If you want to learn, be willing to consider ideas that may not match your expectations or opinions. Above all, don’t fall victim to your own hype. Your business may or may not have serious problems, but another viewpoint will help you sort things out.
- Remain flexible. You may have mentors who stay with you over the long haul, but you will also benefit from people who provide just an afternoon of insightful ideas. If you are fortunate enough to get time with someone who is rarely available, absorb all you can and take notes. Your mentor may be skilled only in one specific area, but that’s okay. All help is good help.
- Don't overlook nontraditional mentors. Some mentors may help you without their knowledge through books, seminars, speeches, videos on Ted, TV programs and the internet. My brother and I always looked to Richard Branson as one of our mentors. We don’t have to meet him in person to appreciate all he provides to entrepreneurs and others all over the world.
- Thank your mentors. When people help you, intentionally or unintentionally, let them know. Mentors are not in it for the money; they just want to help others grow. Think about what you can do to let them know how much you appreciate them and their help.
- Pay it forward. You may never be able to pay your mentors back, but you can recognize what they’ve done for you by becoming a mentor to others. That's one reason we started YoungEntrepreneur.com: to support those who share our dreams and goals.