Don’t Learn Business the Hard Way — Get a Mentor

By Augie Grasis

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:

  • A sounding board: One of the most useful gifts your mentor can provide is an ear for your ideas. A different perspective can help vet ideas. Challenging, questioning, and defending a new idea can identify trouble spots or simply help the entrepreneur polish his pitch to the outside world. A good mentor will ask the hard questions so you can recognize which ideas are worth sticking up for. The simple act of expressing your vision will sharpen and refine your message.
  • Moral support: Business can be emotionally draining. You’re in the weeds every day dealing with problems, and this intensity can make you doubt yourself and your decisions. Mentors are there to remind you that, despite daily barriers, you have a larger mission and what you’re doing is important.
  • Pattern recognition: There are some things an experienced business leader can recognize that a new entrepreneur has yet to learn. Mentors streamline this learning process because they can identify trouble spots in your path and help you avoid them. For example, mentors can offer important guidance on employee issues in a growing company, like helping to identify star players and pointing out problem areas before they become destructive.
  • Customer perspective: When it comes to growing your business, it’s important to have another perspective that reflects your marketplace and your customers—
    a set of eyes and ears in the real world that can communicate trends and insights back to you. A mentor’s experienced perspective can help you evaluate your current product offerings realistically and develop new ones efficiently.

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.

About the author

Augie Grasis is co-founder of FreightorGator, an online exchange for booking and dispatching LTL freight.
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