When you start out, the old principle of learning through the school of hard knocks is always an option, providing you have an endless supply of energy and determination, a bottomless wallet to finance your mistakes and lots of time on your side.
While you are struggling through, why not take the time to ask yourself whether you really need to carry on making a bunch of silly mistakes, or whether listening to someone else who has already made them and come out the other side may be a better option.
Finding a mentor can be the answer.
I’ve mentored many businesses over the years largerly for free sometimes for a fee, and have seen companies transform as a result. If an entrepreneur emails me, or contacts me via social networks, I am usually only too willing to share my expertise. I am always happy to give any business the time of day. I know that simple one-to-one interaction with an experienced hand can make seemingly insurmountable problems disappear and drastically save on all the wasted time and energy that goes with losing money and making mistakes.
Many times, if it is a small project, I will offer my advice for free. If it is part of a longer-term reorganisation that is required, I will charge a nominal fee for a series of days working within the business.
One of my most notable successes as a mentor was with a medical business. The business was basically a private GP service, but while the doctors who ran it were undoubtedly good at diagnosing and curing illnesses, they were well out of their depth when it came to running a company successfully.
When I came along it was obvious that although the doctors had built up a good customer base and were in demand, they were making some very basic errors. For example, their break-even point at that time was £120,000 a month, yet they were only collecting £90,000 a month in fees. It wasn’t that they were not achieving their target, indeed they had more than £800,000 owed to them, they were simply ‘too busy’ to keep their debt under control.
They had made the basic business error of confusing a busy order book with a successful enterprise. If they had only stopped to look, they would have realised that a business is not worth a thing unless it keeps a close eye on cash flow.
As a mentor, I helped them to understand this and to find efficient ways to keep a steady flow of cash coming in. I also helped them with their marketing and suggested ways to switch to a smaller concentration of higher paying customers, rather than relying on numerous, time consuming, yet low-paying patients. All of this is fairly basic, well to me it is….
I have helped many other businesses in different ways too.
All entrepreneurs could benefit from mentoring at one time or another. A knowledgeable and willing advisor offers a plethora of advantages because:
A mentor is an outside individual with an entirely new perspective on your business and its problems.
You can be completely candid with them and do not have to keep anything hidden. Everything you tell them will be reflected back to you in an objective way because neither side will have anything to prove.
An outsider will be able to offer a new view gathered from experiences completely outside your sphere of knowledge. Sometimes this new viewpoint is exactly what the doctor ordered (excuse the pun) when it comes to solving a stale or persistent problem.
Without this fresh perspective, you may never move beyond your present circumstances. Indeed, if you carry on going it alone, you may seriously impair your ability to lead others beyond their existing limitations.
Hopefully, the obvious retort to this advice is; great, where do I get one?
This is, of course, the nub of the issue.
At the time of writing this book, the government has just launched its own mentoring scheme. The idea behind the new initiative is to fill the gap created by the closure of its Business Link advice centres which shut up shop in Autumn 2011. Politicians have made lofty comments about wanting 35,000 mentors in place within a year.
That would all be terrific were it not for the fact that the core of the national mentoring scheme is to be staffed by current and former bank managers. I almost laughed when I saw this. What on earth does a bank manager know about being a business mentor? They might know about mortgages and current accounts, but I have never yet met a bank manager who can tell me anything useful about my business.
If you want to get something valuable out of a mentoring relationship, you need someone who has been there, seen it and done it in other words you want to be great at riding a bike then ride a bike don’t row a boat. You don’t want someone who has just talked about it. Just because you’ve put someone on a course to show them how to be a business mentor doesn’t mean that they’ll have anything to add.
In my opinion (as someone who has seen it and done it) you will be a lot better off being a bit choosy in identifying your mentor.
The two most obvious avenues you might try are to:
Identify a business/business leader who you admire and approach them. As I said, I am more than happy to pass on the benefit of my experience and I know that many of my entrepreneurial colleagues are just the same.
Talk to friends, family, old colleagues, trade associations and business contacts, to see if they know anyone with relevant experience and it does not have to be in the industry you are in. business is business.
Remember too, you don’t need to confine yourself to one expert in a particular field. In fact, you would be better off with a whole series of mentors who will be able to advise on a host of different areas. Similarly, different mentors will be applicable at different times of your business development.
The key to a good mentor/protégé relationship is listening to the good advice you get. There is nothing more galling for a mentor than when they pass on the benefit of their hard-won experience and agree actions only for the recipient to completely ignore it. Its happened to me on a few occasions and it drives me mad. It also ensures that my mentoring relationship is usually cut pretty short. The perfect protégé knows the value of listening not talking. Embrace negative feedback because it is the best way to learn.
The best mentoring relationships work in both directions. I certainly learned many new ideas from my doctor friends as indeed I have benefited from the other companies I have worked with. Everyone can benefit.
If your business needs a mentor to take it to the next level, apply here.
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