Having a business mentor can be an invaluable asset to help you navigate the sometimes confusing parts of getting your business up and running. There is a definite advantage to receiving wise counsel from those who have already achieved success. But it's not always a mentorship made in heaven. It's crucial to vet would-be mentors to find the perfect match.
Angie Judge Morgan, co-founder of leadership development firm Lead Star, served on a nonprofit board with one of her biggest mentors. When she initially reached out to him to ask for advice, he took the opportunity to mentor her. In addition to offering guidance, he opened doors and made introductions for her, including connecting her with a senior Marine Corps leader and with several people in his law firm. “He enabled me to build relationships and expanded my network," Morgan says, both of which were major steps in the firm's early success.
According to research conducted by financial services company Kabbage, small-business owners believe mentors are essential to their success. Ninety-two percent of the small businesses Kabbage surveyed reported that mentors had “a direct impact on growth and profitability in the first four years of their business."
Although only 22% of small businesses studied had mentors at startup, and 89% of those who didn't have mentors wished they did. The obvious benefits of having a business mentor are far reaching and have high impact.
Business Mentor Advantages
Aside from the comfort of knowing you have someone you can turn to who has your back, a mentor provides some specific benefits you're unlikely to get elsewhere.
- Learning from past mistakes. Many small businesses take a trial-and-error approach to problem-solving, observes David Mitroff, PhD, of Piedmont Avenue Consulting Inc. “Learning from people who have already made several mistakes in their business and then ameliorated them lessens the chances of failure," he says. Avoiding common pitfalls can give companies a big leg up, especially during startup.
- Fresh perspective. Because they don't work inside the company, mentors generally bring a less biased perspective, says Mike Simmons of Catalyst Sale. For that reason, they're often able to help business owners shift their perspective and identify potential blind spots that could have gotten them in trouble.
- Unbiased decision-making. “I can convince myself that just about anything is a good idea and that is troublesome," says Joshua Hastings, founder of Money Life Wax. “Having a mentor helps me make solid decisions. This is especially vital when perhaps the decision is an emotional one."
- Opening doors. In addition to making connections to potential clients, mentors can also help with other business relationships. “They can make key introductions so that you avoid getting burned by service providers or potential investors who have mixed reputations," says Paige Arnof-Fenn, founder and CEO of Mavens & Moguls.
- No cost. Unlike business coaches, who are paid professional consultants, mentors are typically unpaid advisors. Many enjoy the opportunity to help entrepreneurs overcome obstacles and achieve success. For some, it's a way to give back to their community.
Business Mentor Drawbacks
Having a sounding board and counselor to turn to with questions can provide a significant competitive advantage, but sometimes mentors can block progress.
- Becoming risk averse. Although Dmytro Okunyev, founder of Chanty, benefited from mentors who warned him about potential pitfalls and issues that his business might face, over time their warnings “made me too wary, too afraid of taking risks," he says. As a result, “I found myself regretting not taking some risks that could have given me massive gains in my business."
- Specialized expertise. While mentors may be extremely knowledgeable about one aspect of your business, such as technology or supply chain, that doesn't guarantee they're knowledgeable about all aspects. Mentors may also try to duplicate their own success and impose ideas that don't fit the mentee's business, notes Linda Murray Bullard of LSMB Business Solutions.
- Bad fit. “A good mentor can really help you. A bad mentor can create bias and frustration, and reinforce a lack of engagement," says Simmons.
So when is it time to move on? “When you feel confident enough to make your own decisions and take ownership of your own mistakes, you can say goodbye to your mentor," Okunyev says. That's a sure sign you've outgrown them. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't look for a new one. Mentors can be useful at every stage of business growth.