Mentorship is one of the most effective business tools out there. Right now, in Miami, a program called Girls Make Beats is partnering professional DJs with more than 80 girls to help them refine their musical skills and potentially jump-start music-industry careers. Even Marc Benioff of Salesforce.com has lauded the value of mentorship. Today, Benioff is worth more than $4 billion, thanks in part to his having been mentored by Steve Jobs — without whom, Benioff has noted, Salesforce.com wouldn’t exist.
Such stories are common in the corporate world, which demands a fusion of people skills, technical insights and comprehensive experiential wisdom. This is especially true for entrepreneurs, who no matter what their education or skills, often lack experiential wisdom. Great mentors at the right time, however, can make all the difference.
Why we need mentors.
Regardless of how prepared an entrepreneur feels he or she is for the dynamic marketplace, an array of problems is bound to arise. And, far from knowing how to combat them, our entrepreneur may never have considered any of them before. Yet mentorship can help with the discovery of ways to approach these diverse problems, through creativity and forethought.
The most successful businesspeople already have these mentorships in place, albeit in a less official capacity. They pick up the phone and call three to four other business leaders to get their opinions on a new project. But the best mentors are more than a “Yoda” to your “Luke.” Instead, they’re those whom entrepreneurs can tap into for the long haul — provided that in return for the mentorship, those entrepreneurs provide value, serving, for example as network resources.
In addition, great mentors challenge entrepreneurs’ thinking and approach, helping them generate fresh insights and render innovation.
In fact, this ability to shake things up is where mentors shine: Instead of simply helping entrepreneurs extinguish day-to-day fires along the path toward viability, a mentor can bring enough necessary distance to the entrepreneur’s business, helping him or her see it from a broader perspective, illuminating the bigger patterns likely to have been missed.
Take, for example, the currently explosive initial coin offering (ICO) scene that one of my company’s investors wanted us to take advantage of. We needed quick advice on the implications that this investment might present us.
Only with mentors could we get an inside peek into this novel field. Even lawyers are still playing catchup with ICOs, but having mentors in place allowed my company to quickly ask many important questions that would have taken much longer otherwise.
How to make mentors a part of your world.
An impressive 70 percent of mentored small-business owners survive for five or more years in the marketplace, according to a survey by The UPS Store. That says that entrepreneurs who focus on identifying and utilizing mentors as they build their businesses will likely find themselves in much better positions for success.
Here are three ways entrepreneurs can identify and approach the right mentors:
1. Leverage contacts at previous workplaces. Entrepreneurs must realize that while jobs are temporary, the people they meet and the relationships they form as a result don’t have to be. So, no matter how distant your old job may seem, reach out to those individuals and use their expertise. An executive whom you used to work under, for instance, may have noticed you and your work even though you didn’t realize it at the time.
My former colleague Matthew Murphy — global vice president of Renren Inc. and chief marketing officer of Chime Technologies — was previously CMO at a Florida startup where both he and I worked. Murphy helped me transform my company by introducing me to industry leaders, who helped me move my company away from our initially embarrassing concept to a more realized product.
While executives are great mentors, given their networking capacity and power, don’t always look “up” when creating your mentor network. Look around, too: Your previous colleagues often have key insights about your vision that you may be underutilizing and overlooking.
2. Join an entrepreneur organization. Although entrepreneurs tend to think of mentors as being those individuals much further down the road in terms of age, experience and success, they don’t have to be. In fact, the opposite is often true: People in similar places in their careers may offer the best counsel, because they’ve recently gone through comparable challenges with their businesses, and want to share what they’ve learned.
Entrepreneurs’ Organization and the Young Entrepreneur Council are two of the bigger and more prominent mentorship organizations. While most of these groups require either an invitation to join, or a certain amount of revenue, you can always find someone who is a member and develop a friendship even if you still lacking those two qualifying distinctions.
In my own case, I credit Rameet Chawla for showing me the value of entrepreneur organizations such as EO, YEC and Summit and the importance of establishing my personal brand. Founder of the design agency Fueled, Chawla has a persona that distinguishes him in his field and makes him an excellent mentor.
Even though I was lucky enough to meet and connect with Chawla, my advice is to not disregard smaller organizations with the hope of holding out for your own Chawla. These organizations might not operate at the same scope and scale, but they’re still very helpful and can launch you into the larger ones.
3. Find several mentors who share your passions. When you reach out to mentors — and aim to have more than one — look for common ground according to your passion for similar challenges and objectives. Then, when you approach these individuals, emphasize these shared passions in a letter or speech to demonstrate the potential of a collaboration.
Don’t just ask someone generically and blandly to be your mentor; you’ll risk coming across as a “social climber.” Mentors want to be aligned with those who share similar values and goals.
Related: The Top 3 Traits of a Good Mentor
The point is that mentoring gets results. Consider the U.K.’s endorsement of this belief with its recent National Mentoring Day. Britain has taken big strides in connecting all sorts of people — from schoolkids to businesspeople. The express purpose is to grow a collaborative and progressive culture across multiple sectors, acknowledging that one of the best paths to success is through our relationships with like-minded individuals.
Finding a mentor isn’t about finding a more polished copy of yourself, though. The best mentors help their mentees find their own paths and succeed on their own terms; so keep your eye on your particular values and roots, the qualities that made you an entrepreneur in the first place.
After all, entrepreneurs tend to thrive on independence and staking their marketplace claims, but business can’t operate on an island — and neither should you.