A mentor can be an entrepreneur's secret weapon, offering not only expertise but also a rolodex of valuable connections. So, it’s no surprise that many successful entrepreneurs were mentees themselves. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerburg was mentored by Apple’s Steve Jobs. Microsoft’s Bill Gates credits some of his success to his mentor, Warren Buffet. Richard Branson was the mentee of British airline entrepreneur, Sir Freddie Laker.
Perhaps, if you're like me, you’ve tried to follow those examples and find a mentor in your industry. You may have reached out to locals, asked for introductions through mutual friends and sought out high-profile mentors through conferences. But if none of these in-person introductions have panned out, you, like myself, turned to good old Google to help your quest.
In terms of my experience, this Internet search turned to be a complete nightmare. I kept finding the same result: “You’re welcome to apply for our Mega Mastermind VIP Platinum Level Coaching Circle.” Which translates to “Sure, I’d be happy to mentor you for just $2,000 a month." And I discovered this monthly price can range from $397 to $9,999, and the level of coaching varies accordingly. Many of the programs only include group calls or coaching from "expert" -- not actual entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, the trend continued on the local level, as successful businesspersons now tout “coaching programs.” These findings reiterate the fact we have entered the age of online marketing, which means that old pros are now monetizing and streamlining every part of their business. What was once a face-to-face conference is now a webinar. A personal email is now an automated reply. Brainstorming sessions are now "masterminds."
Though coaching programs can be budgeted for and may indeed be worth the investment, can they truly replace the role of mentor? I think the jury is still out.
And some mentorship programs – really amazing ones -- are becoming obsolete thanks to content marketing. Experts are taking to the web to share their advice for free through blog posts, podcasts and online video. But when "Joe Schmo," the small-business owner, comes up against a tough business decision, is he going to get the kind of mentorship that he needs in an online forum or blog post archive? I doubt it.
I’m all for monetization and diversifying revenue streams, as every smart entrepreneur should be. And I get that there can be a lack of appreciation for free offerings and advice (i.e. when disengaged students waste a mentor’s time). Yet, I still believe most seasoned businesspeople have a soft spot for beginners – the people that are hustling and actively in search of guidance and knowledge.
If you are one of these beginners in search of a friend to phone, here are some options to consider instead.
Look outside your industry.
Okay, you may have tried these in-person introductions but did you really try? Though this is not ideal, you know you are a student of business. Find and join a local commerce organization to connect with local leaders – and try not to be too picky. A local real-estate millionaire is still a millionaire with plenty of wisdom to share. Search your region using LinkedIn and try reaching out to masters of industry in neighboring cities. A day in the car once a month is a small price to pay for a mentor.
Related: Choose the Right Incubator for Your Startup
Find an incubator.
Many cities and universities have small-business incubators that offer mentoring along with office space and training programs. The mentors may only include professors or consultants -- instead of seasoned veterans -- but chances are they have connections those veterans. Plus, after years of working with other startups, they probably have some useful experience to share. Who knows, using the shared office space may put your desk right next to the eventual CEO of the world’s next big startup.
Get an accountability partner.
Don't underestimate the power of a great accountability partner. If the leader of the pack is unreachable, look to your left or right. Find someone who is doing well -- ideally better than you -- and see if they would be interested in weekly meetings. Starting out as an entrepreneur can be lonely and stressful and just knowing you have someone to bounce ideas off of can make all the difference.
If none of those options pan out, consider purchasing a program for a specific part of your business. Rather than a business coach or life coach, hire a writing coach or a branding consultant. Find an online course that solves the biggest problem your business is currently facing. That way you are spending less and can expect targeted results.
Is an age-old leadership tradition coming to an end? Are young business men and women only able to learn as online customers where we once had the opportunity to be apprentices? I hope the answer is no. I hope that masters who offer such programs at least award scholarships or occasional free “one-on-one sessions.” To those that do, thank you, and to those that don’t, I hope you’ll consider it, remembering just how hard it can be to get started as a young entrepreneur.