A lot goes into establishing a startup, as you well know. Location is near the top of the list for most entrepreneurs, and you should look for areas with favorable regulations and communities where colleges and universities are producing a strong talent pool. Funding is also critical, but entrepreneurs are finding it easier to secure funding than ever before through venture capital and other traditional means. What's often more difficult but just as important is finding strong mentorship.
Mentors have been in your position before, so having them around to provide an additional perspective is invaluable. In this article, I'll illustrate the numerous benefits that mentors bring to the table and give you some ideas about where to start your own search for qualified mentors.
A Demonstrable Difference
According to a 2014 business outcomes study by the MicroMentor program, mentored businesses were able to increase revenue by 83 percent, while those going it alone only experienced a 16 percent increase. Out of a baseline group of would-be startups, 42 percent of those that were matched with mentors actually launched, while only 29 percent of those without mentors did the same.
Mentors aren't just there to motivate you. You started your own business, so you're obviously able to motivate yourself. What mentors do is drive results in your business by giving you seasoned advice. All startups will have growing pains, and you'll inevitably make mistakes along the way that may appear obvious in hindsight. A mentor can help you avoid some of those mistakes because they've been in your shoes before and have made the same mistakes.
Good mentors will also have strong networks. Depending on your relationship, they may be willing to introduce you to people who will later become your investors, partners, employees, or customers.
One of the most difficult parts of starting a business is holding yourself accountable. You know all the obstacles you face, and you know you're doing the best you can. It can be easy to let yourself off the hook every now and then. The best mentors will ask you tough questions and make sure you're holding yourself responsible instead of echoing your own sentiments.
Mentorship has a tangible effect on the performance of startups and small businesses, so if you've been going without this key ingredient, it's time to add it to your recipe. There is no one path to finding a mentor. Some business owners meet their mentors on airplanes or the golf course, and that's great. But I'm guessing you don't have time to fly back and forth across the country or play 18 holes every day hoping to find the right fit, so I suggest you start looking in these places instead.
1. Participate in an accelerator program.
The purpose of an accelerator is simple: to accelerate a startup's growth. Mentorship is a significant part of many accelerators, and participants have seen firsthand how a strong mentor can have a powerful impact.
WIFIPLUG, a company that produces a smart plug, is still working with its lead mentor from the Ameren Accelerator program (now taking applications). Its mentor has taken on the role of national sales manager for WIFIPLUG and helped the company establish valuable business connections. WIFIPLUG CEO Leon Doyle attests to that, saying, "Our mentor made a huge difference to the entire company. That one arrangement has brought in countless more deals and leads."
"Being able to discuss a key issue with someone qualified and not emotionally or financially invested in your business is huge for one's entrepreneurship journey," says Galina Ozgur, GM of Grand Central Tech, a New York City-based tech campus and accelerator geared towards startups poised for scale. Ozgur advises founders looking to join an accelerator or incubator to do their research and explore into the accelerator's mentor network via their website or on LinkedIn to get a better sense of where that those mentors' strengths may lie.
2. Find local startup networking events.
These events can come in all shapes and sizes, from exclusive clubs frequented by Silicon Valley's top founders to online-only gatherings of entrepreneurs and businesspeople. Networking events are a great opportunity to speak to and learn from entrepreneurial-minded individuals. They give you exposure to professionals from a huge variety of industries. When looking for a mentor, try to find someone in the same industry or at least one similar to yours so you can benefit from their network (and they can benefit from yours).
3. Utilize your local small business development center.
Many entrepreneurs are unaware that the federal government provides technical assistance to small business owners through its Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs). These programs provide free one-on-one mentoring and low-cost training opportunities for their clients in locations around the country, using a combination of federal funds, state and local government contributions, and private sector resources. SBDCs operate in more than 900 locations, meaning the valuable coaching and guidance they provide is available virtually anywhere.
4. Have informal conversations with your network.
Hillel Fuld, a prominent startup advisor and tech blogger, advises founders to forget secrecy. "Contrary to popular belief, keeping your startup idea close and confidential is a fundamental mistake," says Fuld. After all, chances are no one will be able to take your idea and run with it faster than you might. And, in the unlikely chance that someone does, you still have the passion to out-execute them. "Speaking to people you trust, getting feedback on both the vision and the product is invaluable, and out-values the risk of sharing your idea and having it 'stolen'," says Fuld. "The more brains you can pick in the formation of your venture, the higher the chances of its success."
Entrepreneurs are naturally independent do-it-yourselfers, but you don't have to go it entirely alone. Forming a relationship with a mentor is a key ingredient to the success of your startup, and it can help you avoid mistakes that newcomers naturally make. And who knows? If you find success through a program, you may find yourself mentoring a new business owner like yourself one day.