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Business planning for startups: finding mentors


First published in StartupSmart and Smart Company on October 28, 2013 

A big indicator of business maturity is admitting that you don’t know everything. In my first “proper” job in the early ‘90s, three months in and I thought I knew it all. The word “mentor” didn’t enter my vocabulary until I was well into my thirties.

It’s not just today’s new generation that has an attitude. I remember feeling seriously smug about a lot of things when us Gen Xs were the new entrants of the corporate world. God forbid anyone tried to advise me on a better way of doing something or started a sentence with “I was once your age and…”

One home truth that remains is that you don’t always have the good fortune of working closely with a great leader. In your entire career, you might be lucky to work with one such person. But that doesn’t preclude you from surrounding yourself with people who can teach you a thing or two, regardless whether you share the same industry.

To get a mentor in any field, you need a certain degree of shamelessness. There’s no secret to engaging with someone you respect, and there’s really only one tried and tested technique that works like a charm. You ask them.

Several months ago I had the good fortune, purely by chance, to sit beside a very high profile individual at a business function. The fact he was from an entirely different industry and professional background made little difference. It was very clear that this person’s professional achievements were exceptional and that I could learn more than a thing or two.

We didn’t have much chance to speak at the function itself, so the following week I wrote an introduction email and asked whether I could buy him a coffee. The email simply said that working for myself I had little chance of being around professionals of his calibre and that if he had time for a coffee, even once a year for 30 minutes, I’d appreciate it. We met the following week, talked for over an hour and I now feel I have someone to run ideas past – from time to time.

No matter how generous people are on paper or in theory, one rule I live by is to never take advantage of people’s time. For that reason it’s good to have a pool of mentors to draw from at various times. No one person has all the answers and the more professionals you can surround yourself with, the better.

Working for myself over the last decade, I’ve had a lot of retrospective moments remembering advice from former bosses, especially those who also worked for themselves. Everything that seemed trivial at the time, like the way you set up your online files or how you follow up unpaid invoices, has helped me in some way.

As my business has evolved, I’ve sought advice from an even wider cross section of people. Other entrepreneurs from completely different fields, those who have navigated their career to a place I’d like to be in five or 10 years, or simply interesting people. The two pieces of advice I can offer are:

1) Don’t be afraid to ask for help and
2) Don’t be offended if they say no.

It’s never personal and, really, the more mentors the merrier.

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