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The Vital Role of Mentors in Small Business Success

The business press is full of terrifying tales about new business start ups. Depending on which particular horror writer you prefer to believe, something between 40 and 60 percent of new businesses fail in the first three years. However, that doesn’t deter more people every year from taking the plunge and launching their own businesses. Last year, 90 new businesses launched every hour in the UK. 

The desire to be your own boss and in control of your own destiny is an understandable one, and it is aligned with millennial attitudes and aspirations. There’s also the fact that the above statistic is from a “glass half empty” perspective. With that vast number of start ups, the fact that around half have a good chance of surviving the first three years is maybe not such a horror story after all. 

Launching a business is a big step, especially for younger entrepreneurs who are rich in ambition but lacking in practical experience. Keeping your start up in the top 50 percentile is a much more reasonable aspiration if you can call upon someone with some expertise and experience for advice.

Young talent is desperate to be mentored 

Market research from Dubai-based Jupiter Business Mentors showed that 93 percent of young entrepreneurs felt they needed interaction with mentors who had stood in their shoes on the way to business success. Those feelings are borne out by the statistics – in short, mentored businesses are twice as likely to survive and thrive compared with those that have to manage with no mentor. 

Here are some more telling statistics from both Jupiter’s research and other studies by business consultants across the globe:

  • 92 percent of small business entrepreneurs say mentors had a direct impact on the growth of their business in its early years.
  • Nine out of ten small business owners who don’t have a mentor wish they had one.
  • More than 60 percent of small business owners go on to mentor other young business owners.

Why are mentors so important?

A business mentor can guide a new business owner through critical steps in his or her journey. 

  • Offer unbiased and unemotional guidance
  • Providing a different viewpoint or perspective to solve problems
  • Create a business roadmap and help mark off milestones
  • Make valuable introductions, for example to angel investors or potential supply chain partners
  • Offer established experience and practices to counterbalance any tunnel visioned obsession with innovation 

Success stories that can inspire us all

That all sounds highly laudable in theory. However, to truly understand the value of a business mentor, there is nothing like looking at a handful of real-world examples. Here are some business success stories that might have gone very differently had it not been for the entrepreneurs’ mentors.  

Jenny Costa

Jenny Costa is the founder of Rubies in the Rubble, a sustainable food brand that has gone from strength to strength since launching in 2011. The brand was inspired by Jenny, who was 25 at the time, being horrified at seeing how much perfectly edible food is discarded – well over seven million tonnes per year in the UK alone. 

Jenny hit on the idea of procuring fruit and vegetables that would otherwise be destined for the landfill and using them to make condiments like chutneys and relishes. Jenny had previously worked at a hedge fund, so her new business idea was a complete departure from her area of experience. 

It would be hard to criticise her hedge fund colleagues if they had been a little cynical about a 25 year old walking away from a burgeoning career in finance to follow a dream of creating eco-friendly chutney. Yet it was Jenny’s boss who provided the advice and encouragement she needed in the early days. Jenny told HuffPost UK: “When I left my old job I remember my boss saying: ‘Go at it full-heartedly, with everything you have, putting 100% into it.’ That way, if it failed, it would fail fast and I could move on in the knowledge that I’d given it a good go.”

Today, the Rubies in the Rubble range is available at top end stores like Selfridges and natural food outlets such as Whole Foods. The business has seen consistent growth year on year, even through the difficult times of 2020 and 2021.

Pippa Murray

Another food entrepreneur, Pippa is the face behind the Pip&Nut range of nut butters. The business will celebrate its 10th anniversary this year, and has gone from nothing to a nine million pound brand, with products stocked in the UK’s major supermarkets. 

Pippa’s business mentor was a little more conventional, in that he had cut his business teeth in the same sector. Giles Brook spent several years as Commercial Director at Innocent Drinks before becoming CEO at Vita Coco in 2009. 

Pippa told The Early Hour that Giles’ support has been “absolutely key” in helping her to steer the business in the right direction during those critical early months and years.   

Dougi Bryce

Dougi was thrown in at the deep end to take the reins at Judo Scotland in 2008 whille still in his 20s. His story gives an indication of how effective a more formal mentoring process can be – and sometimes for the mentor as much as for the mentored! He was given the opportunity to access a mentor through the local Chamber of Commerce and grabbed it with both hands. 

He ended up working with Steve Snow, who had years of business experience, but had never worked in the sports sector at all. The relationship grew rapidly, the two shared a similar informal way of working and met over coffee for one to two hour sessions. 

Dougi believes that working with someone from outside the sector is the secret to successful mentoring, as you are exposed to completely new perspectives and approaches. Steve agreed, although he was surprised to find that despite never having been near a sporting business in his life, he was facing very familiar challenges – as well as some new ones. He said he learned a great deal from the experience too. 

Amit Gudka

In 2015, Amit Gudka and business partner Hayden Wood decided to walk away from their well-paying jobs in the energy industry to explore more sustainable ways of generating power. They launched Bulb in early 2017, and six years on, it is the biggest renewable energy company in the UK, and has got the entire industry taking a long, hard look in the mirror. 

Amit says he and Haydeen have taken advice and inspiration from all quarters during their business’s meteoric rise, including the team members at Bulb whose salaries they pay. However, when pressed to name one mentor, Amit immediately name checked Nikhil Shah, who was one of the original founders at Mixcloud. He said Nikhil’s guidance “gave us the confidence to initially make the leap and launch Bulb,” and added that he “has been a constant source of encouragement since.”   

Ian McIntyre

Ian launched Forth Architecture having worked for other companies as a Chartered Architectural Technologist. He soon found that he faced a number of challenges in terms of knowledge gaps in broader business areas such as business administration, contract negotiation and marketing. 

After attending several Business Gateway workshops, he linked up with Fiona Thornton as mentor through his local Chamber of Commerce. Fiona is an expert in change management with 30 years’ business experience across a range of sectors.

Ian and Fiona had monthly meetings, interspersed with ad hoc phone calls. The business was soon on a more solid footing, and turnover increased by 40 percent in the first year, something Ian is sure would not have been achieved without Fiona’s support. They found that working on Ian’s confidence and work / life balance was just as important as addressing more prosaic business issues. 

Mark Zuckerberg

Across the Atlantic, to the man who needs no introduction. There is, however, plenty of myth and misconception surrounding the Facebook founder. Perhaps because of his youth and his swagger, people tend to assume he created Facebook, turned it into what is arguably the most powerful media instrument on the planet and became a multi-billlionaire almost by accident.

Mark is actually a very shrewd businessman, and he relied on old hands with more knowledge and expertise as much as any young entrepreneur as he built his business. We could probablly write a book on the people who mentored, advised and inspired Mark Zuckerberg, assuming nobody has done so already.

However, the man he credits as giving the most support and the best advice is Steve Jobs. The pair worked closely together in the early days of Facebook and Mark has been quoted as saying “a small amount of time invested on your part to share your expertise can open up a new world for someone else.” He said that Steve showed him how to “build a team that was as focused as I was on creating high quality and good things.”

Virender Sehwag

It’s not just businesspeople who benefit from mentors. Indian opening batsman Virennder Sehwag was mentored by Sachin Tendulkar, statistically India’s greatest batsman of all time. 

Sehwag pointed out that Tendulkar was not a coach. He didn’t offer advice on technique or any technical aspects of batting. Instead, in an era when every aspiring batsman was trying to emulate Tendulkar, Tendulkar guided Sehwag to nurture and develop his own style. Sehwag deescribed mentoring as “the concept of becoming the best version of you that you can.”    

Finding the right mentor

The above case studies demonstrate two things. The first is that mentoring can help you to grow in your chosen career or to develop your new business, and not always in the ways you might expect. 

The second is that there is no “one size fits all” approach to mentoring. Some people are mentored by those within their industry, while others feel the whole point is to benefit from a completely outside perspective. Some mentors are old and trusted friends who lend an informal hand, while others are engaged through formal mentoring programmes.

So if you are starting out on a lonely road with a new business startup, how can you go about finding the right mentor to keep you on the straight and narrow and, more to the point, in that upper 50 percentile? 

To paraphrase the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, you’re not going to find a mentor who meets your needs unless you are clear about what you need from a mentor. Ask yourself what skills you lack or processes you need to understand, what sort of industry knowledge would benefit you and the type of personality with whom you are most likely to engage. Also ask yourself what you can contribute to the mentoring relationship. 

From that, you can create at least the outline of a profile. Next, look at your options on how you might connect with a potential mentor:

  • Personal network – how did anyone know anyone before we had LinkedIn? If your personal network is lacking, it is worth investing in premium membership to expand it, or at least making use of any free trial period! Just remember to stick to the profile and stay realistic – it’s a fair bet that Bill Gates and Peter Jones have enough on already.
  • Mentorship Programmes – we saw a couple of examples above of how effective these can be. Get in touch with your local Chamber of Commerce to find out what is available in your area. 
  • Meetup – there are literally thousands of online events every day on the meetup platform, and it is a great way to make connections in both your industry and your geographic area. Be strategic, though, as it can be an easy way to lose days of your life. 
  • Cold emailing – mentioned for completeness, as this is a method that you will find mentioned in MBA texts – but mostly those printed at least 10 years ago! The problem is that there is so much spam in circulation that very few people respond to cold email content unless you’ve got a great pitch and something amazing to offer in return for mentorship. Even then, be prepared for most people to ignore you, block you or swear at you.

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