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Having a business mentor can mean the difference between success and failure for many small business owners. When it comes to great accomplishments, many successful entrepreneurs are “standing on the shoulders of giants.”
That’s right. Someone once showed them the ropes, giving them both the confidence and encouragement needed to reach new heights in business.
Behind even the most successful entrepreneur, you can usually find a great mentor. Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, admits that his mentor, Steve Jobs, gave him direction in tough times. Jobs urged Zuckerberg to stay true to his vision and build a high-quality team to help support his company’s success. Zuckerberg has also been mentored by other investors and advisors over the course of his career, like the founder of Napster.
One of the world’s most profitable, prolific investors, Warren Buffett, had a mentor named Benjamin Graham. Buffet first read Graham’s book on value investing and was later able to take one of his courses when he was enrolled in Colombia Business College.
Robert Kiyosaki, real estate investor and author of the book Rich Dad, Poor Dad, says that much of his business success is owed to his “rich dad” mentor who showed him how to be an investor as opposed to an employee. This “rich dad” taught him the value of acquiring income-producing assets and helped him lay the foundation for his real estate and media empire.
Strangely enough, business mentoring relationships can even form between competitors. Marc Benioff, former employee and executive at Oracle still considers Larry Ellison, Oracle founder and CEO, a mentor. Though their companies, Salesforce.com and Oracle are direct competitors, Benioff dedicates an entire chapter of his book, Behind the Cloud, to what he learned from Ellison.
So, as you can see, mentorship played an important role for some of the top names in business. It’s fair to say that having a business mentor can help your entrepreneurial career in the long run—here’s how six entrepreneurs found that out firsthand.
Shireen Jaffer of career coaching firm Skillify says that a high school humanities teacher encouraged her to enroll in University of Southern California’s entrepreneur program. While there, she showed up for a presentation where she “accidentally” pitched a business idea. A professor witnessed the pitch, invited her to discuss it more with him, and two months later she launched her idea!
Jaffer didn’t have any entrepreneurial roots in her family, so there was no one close to lean on when it came to business questions. So, the string of teachers and professors who acted as mentors were crucial to her early success in business.
Jaffer sums up what she learned about mentorship in business: “Finding a strong network of mentors is just as important as coming up with a great business idea.”
If you’re looking to learn about a field or trade, you’d be an apprentice under an experienced tradesman. Although many people think this type of arrangement only works for electricians, welders, or carpenters, it can really be applied to almost any career path.
Finyl Vinyl owner Don Barlow says, “Mentorship offers many advantages when first starting on a career path. It’s a valuable tool when you want to learn a trade or enter your career.”
Mentors can be a great example of what to do in business, but they can also highlight paths to avoid. If an experienced, successful business owner in the same or similar industry cautions against a course of action, it might pay in spades to take heed.
Jeff Hensel of North Coast Financial says that being his father’s understudy in the private lending business saved him a lot of time and money by learning from the mistakes his father made.
Hensel adds, “Being able to learn from the mistakes of someone else is much easier than doing things incorrectly and learning the hard way.”
Many people think their mentor has to be an industry elder who paid their dues and wants nothing more than to give a hand to up-and-coming business stars. This is not always the case.
As we saw with Benioff, mentors can be former bosses turned competitors, peers, colleagues, parents, or anyone willing to show you the ropes on any aspect of your business.
Deborah Sweeney, owner of My Corporation, which she purchased from software giant Intuit, says she has many mentors who taught her many things. Sweeney says her mentors include “my mom (full-time career woman and amazing, supportive mom), a few of my female professors, a mentor in my law practice, and colleague-mentors with whom I graduated law school.”
If you’ve got a gap in your upper management, a mentor could help you perform important job functions. If you’re a small startup, you might not have a chief information officer or a head of human resources quite yet. Whether your budget is slim or you just haven’t gotten around to making that hire, a trusted mentor or adviser could do the job until you have an employee in that position.
Jan Bednar, CEO of logistics firm Shipmunk, called his mentor to evaluate job candidates for an important position. He had her mentor, Bob Nelson, sit through interviews with him. Bob chimed in and asked important questions and eventually gave him a recommendation for the best candidate.
Initially, this candidate was not a top pick for Bednar. Ultimately, he went with Nelson’s “gut,” which turned out to be a great decision. He later found out the candidate he preferred left the industry altogether.
Sweeney recaps his biggest takeaway from the experience: “Mentors can help you through the hiring process. Growing your team, when you’ve never built one before, can be very difficult to do on your own.”
Mentors who are really vested in your success can also help you make important connections in your industry. According to health and wellness expert Amy Backlock of Life Zemplified, mentors can provide valued connections and industry contacts.
She recognizes her mentor as a crucial part of starting her personal training business. “When I opened a personal training studio years ago,” she says, “my mentor was a successful doctor of physical therapy who owned many rehabilitation centers.”
Having someone well-connected as a mentor laid a good foundation for her foray into entrepreneurship. “He was a source of endless information, important contacts, and a terrific sounding board for me, all contributing to my success.”
Mentorship can be a catalyst for growth for small business owners. When trying to find a mentor, be open and consider nontraditional sources of mentorship if you can’t form a traditional mentorship relationship right away. You might not be able to cozy up to the likes of Bill Gates or Elon Musk, but there are other ways to receive their mentorship. By checking out their speeches on YouTube, reading their books, and studying their moves, you’ll have a taste of their advice and guidance on different subjects.
Nowadays, you can even get specialized mentoring or coaching for topics like Pinterest marketing, email list building, or customer service mastery. You can also find scores of e-courses, webinars, and other info-products to fill in knowledge gaps.
Then, of course, there are times when you need a personal touch or very specific help in a matter. In that case, it couldn’t hurt to have a trusted adviser queued up ready to help you out. In the end, having a great business mentor could make a huge difference in your business success, so it’s definitely worth the effort to seek one out.