The odds are good that this thought has crossed an entrepreneur’s mind before: “Life would be so much easier if I could build a successful business just by reading a book or taking a class.”
But in entrepreneurship, every opportunity is unique. Your skills and ideas, each marketplace, the problems you encounter, and the opportunities that will come your way are all unique to you and your startup. So, you need more than a startup textbook.
You need a mentor.
Every company and every leader, no matter how established, needs a support system. While companies often have boards of directors (which advise the founder), they often have a different agenda as investors or business owners. Startup leaders without this type of mentorship support often make repeated mistakes or bad business decisions while trying to solve unexpected problems. These mistakes aren’t necessarily fatal for businesses, but they can set the company on a fatal course without insight and guidance from someone who has been there before.
During a time of fast growth and rapid change, having a mentor is particularly important. A suddenly successful entrepreneur can fall victim to confirmation bias, seeing only the information that supports his or her idea (or that because the company is growing, it can do no wrong). A good mentor will recognize these tendencies and help the entrepreneur think ahead and apply what works and discard bad practices.
Mentoring is a two-way street. Established entrepreneurs also gain from mentoring the next generation. It is rewarding to “give back” and to feel that one’s own battle scars will help someone else succeed.
I am proud to have been involved with the University of Missouri Entrepreneurship Alliance, a program founded to help and motivate new entrepreneurs, to foster key skills of entrepreneurship, and to provide incubator-like support for college students interested in building a business. Mentorship is a core feature of this program. Greg Bier, the program’s leader, invites businesspeople and successful entrepreneurs to engage with the students. The students learn and grow in confidence with the mentors’ feedback, and in turn, the mentors are invigorated by the energy and new perspectives of the new generation.
Whether you’re still in college and considering starting a business, your business is in the midst of rapid growth, or you’ve been running a company for 30 years, you may benefit from engaging with a mentor. Here are some of the qualities to look for:
In my 30 years of building technology businesses, I have benefitted greatly from the help and mentorship given generously by a few experienced and successful entrepreneurs. Do your startup a favor, and engage someone who can help with the big picture and bring new perspectives and traditional business insight into the mix.