I used to believe that the only business mentors I'd ever want could be found between the covers of books. I'd learn the essentials of entrepreneurship from reading about the lives of great entrepreneurs. I'd find inspiration in their stories, which would fuel me in my hour of need.
Don't get me wrong--this is a valuable approach. I'd recommend it to anybody. I owe most of what I know about running a business to a) nearly 20 years of practical experience and b) devouring all the literature I can about the subject.
That said, I've learned from personal experience that this one-two combination simply isn't enough. This lesson came home to me when I met Randy Komisar--author, venture capitalist and all-around business badass--in 2014 while raising money for my company.
It's no exaggeration to say that this man changed my life. My experiences with Komisar drove home these three main reasons why a personal mentor beats an impersonal one any day of the week:
1. They're timely.
It's one thing to read about Henry Ford's technique for focusing on a task at work, and another to solve a crisis that demands your immediate attention and a timely, unambiguous solution.
I recall a time when I was facing a contentious situation with my leadership team that I had no idea how to handle. Without going into too much detail, I'd made some completely wrong assumptions about the source of their discontent, and was shocked to discover that I was actually the culprit.
Komisar's advice was to immediately schedule a face-to-face meeting with the whole crew and bring everything out in the open. He also suggested that we cease trying to solve complex problems over phone calls, and stick to video conferences from then on.
It seems like simple stuff in retrospect, but in the moment it was invaluable. It highlighted the power of mentorship--when the answer is directly in front of you, but you're too close to the forest to see the trees.
2. They can customize.
If there's one constant about business, it's that it's changing all the time. Your business is as unique as you are--it has a personality, strengths, weaknesses, quirks.
No business is going to handle the exact same problem the exact same way. A living mentor--one who knows you, who's spent hours talking with you and can peek inside your head--is going to be able to respond to your unique difficulties uniquely, rather than offer some boilerplate advice.
Through you, a personal mentor will come to know your team. It's impossible to overstate the benefits of being close to someone who can speak to the challenges of your whole organization almost as a member of the family.
3. They can explore.
Finally, a personal mentor can help you work through problems in an almost therapeutic way. There's a back-and-forth, an exploratory exchange of ideas that may not always lead to a eureka moment, but that will help you grow both as a person and entrepreneur.
I was raised Mormon, and as I approached middle age I began to have what some would call a crisis of faith. I called Komisar and asked if I could bend his ear for a few minutes.
Thankfully, he agreed, and I count our exchange that day as one of the profoundest of my life. His advice was sensitive, intelligent, prudent and spot-on. I remember driving away from his house in a kind of awe--and our conversation didn't even hinge on business.
If I'd met Komisar 15 years ago, who knows how much further along I'd be today. My advice to you, especially if you're a young entrepreneur, is that you begin looking now for a guide who a) knows your vertical, b) you get along with, and c) is a person with qualities you'd love to emulate.