Advice is cheap. As a new business owner, you don't have to take any advice you hear, but failing to listen and learn from someone's prior experience can cost you a fortune.

As a long-time mentor and business advisor, I find it ironic that many look only to friends for advice. They forget that friends tell you what you want to hear, while good mentors tell you what you need to hear.

When the message is the same from both, you probably don't need the mentor anymore, but you always need the friend. Also don't confuse a business mentor with a business coach.

A business mentor helps to fill an experience gap, while a coach helps fill a skill gap. Both may be required.

A mentor's aim is to teach you by using specific examples of what to do and how, unlike a coach who helps you develop your generic skills for deciding what to do and when.

Before you are ready for a mentor, you must know yourself. Have you assessed your strengths and weaknesses? What are your goals? Where are you heading?

Unless you know these things, no one can help you. Also, you need to be mentally prepared to accept advice and criticism, if it is honest, helpful, and given in a friendly way.

Once you are ready, what are some attributes of a good mentor and advisor that you should look for? You need someone who can:

1. Focus your ideas toward viable business results.

Most business owners have lots of ideas. Some can be put into practice easily, but others will be off-the-wall and need refinement to implement.

A good mentor will have knowledge and some perspective on almost every business subject, to keep your focus in the right ballpark, and the right ball.

2. Assess time spent on daily crises versus priorities.

It's easy to be driven most of the time by the crisis of the moment. As such, it's easy to neglect the real priority for growing the business.

Sharing your goals with your mentor means that if you don't complete goals, you have a credible voice to remind you and help get you back on the right track.

3. Recommend required pivots and exit strategies.

A successful business is constantly innovating. You need alerts to new pivot requirements, growth strategies, and partnering alternatives, with a realistic understanding of the costs and resources required.

Then, there is the exit strategy which needs planning, connections, and forethought.

4. Introduce you to the contacts and partners you need.

When you need contacts for investors, equipment, and legal or accounting advice, your mentor has the contacts and knows where to find the information.

More importantly, the mentor tells you what you need to do to build and maintain your own list of contacts.

5. Provide an unbiased and pragmatic status perspective.

A good mentor knows what to look for, and sees what your customers see. It's natural to become so immersed in your business that you forget to step back and look in from the outside.

It's like living next to the railroad tracks; after a while you don't even see or hear the trains.

How do you find that all-knowing business mentor who is a perfect match for your temperament and your business? The best approach I know is make a short list of the people you most respect in your domain, who are accessible, do your homework, and get to know them personally. If the relationship works, ask for their help. Compensation may be offered, but is often not required.

An ideal candidate is someone from the Boomer generation, who is semi-retired, but still active in local organizations or the investment community. Another alternative would be a business professional who does this for a living, or a role model in a related business who is willing to share.

Even famous billionaire business leaders, including Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, have mentors. Of course, many of these are now friends as well. But in the beginning, you should assume that you need at least one of each, and the ability to tell the difference.

Published on: Aug 14, 2017