You desperately need specialist knowledge and experience to nurture your fledgling business. What do you do? The natural reaction is to make a formal approach to a potential mentor.
However, there is a shift taking place away from formal mentoring programs to using your own networks to identify the right person or people to help give you a leg up.
Increasingly, you’re just as likely to find a mentor over a casual BBQ than via a formal program.
This trend is aided by the fact that the definition of mentor is now so wide. As long as someone has knowledge that can materially aid your business, he or she can provide mentorship, regardless of whether they fit the traditional image of the wise business elder.
Using your networks
“All of my current mentors are from networking with business groups and developing relationships with people who have more experience than me in an area that I need help with,” says Suzette Bailey, who runs Canberra-based information management consultancy Sensory7 and who is a former board member of mentoring group Women In Information and Communication.
She says once she has identified a potential mentor, “I ask them if they can help and things have progressed from informal to formal naturally.”
“I know this can be a little more time consuming but the payoff is huge. For someone starting out, I recommend they join a local networking group that is likely to have the type of mentor they would like to learn from and then develop a relationship with someone they feel has the experience and whom they can trust.”
However, this switch to a more informal method of securing mentors doesn’t mean you don’t have to be proactive.
“Mentors don’t just arrive, you have to go out and find them,” says Sara Lucas, who is something of an expert on the subject of mentoring.
She co-founded Heads Over Heels, a networking organisation for female entrepreneurs and is a mentor for PushStartAU, an organisation that accelerates Australian start-ups, as well as for MEGA Mobile Enterprise Growth Alliance, a joint government and industry initiative to accelerate business growth.
According to Lucas, who has been a mentor and is also currently mentored, to find the perfect mentor “you have to be specific about the help you need – you don’t want just any mentor.”
“It’s about identifying your challenges and finding someone with the skills and willingness to help you meet them.”
At the moment, Lucas is developing a business called EnrichMe.com.au, which is an interactive forum to empower women to better manage their money through experience and education. The site includes online training and webinars and guest expert blogs.
Lucas is currently working with a mentor to help her develop the business, specifically its technology aspects.
She says when she wanted to identify the right mentor to help her develop the business, “I was looking for particular technology skills to help me build EnrichMe.com.au and I found those by mixing in developer circles.”
“It’s all about the law of reciprocity,” explains Lucas, who says that in her experience, mentors generally volunteer their time and don’t expect payment.
“I was able to find my mentor because I was acting as a mentor helping technology specialists with business development and commercialisation.”
“So I put myself in a place where I was able to find a technical mentor who could help me with the aspects of my business about which I wasn’t an expert,” she adds.
Lucas is a former associate director of Macquarie Bank, a place where she was able to leverage the business development and commercialisation skills she now shares with other budding entrepreneurs.
Finding a connection
Suzette Bailey says when it comes to finding the right mentor, it’s all about the connection you have with your potential mentor.
“It’s about finding someone you genuinely connect with,” she advises, adding that both formal and informal mentor relationships have their place.
“There is a place for formal mentoring; it can be a good way to meet potential mentors,” says Bailey.
But she says the drawback is that formal mentoring can be somewhat of an artificial relationship if there isn’t a natural connection between the two parties.