“I was lucky that I met the right mentors and teachers at the right moment.” – James Levine
Four-leaf clovers, wishbones, horseshoes, a rabbit’s foot—all symbols of luck, something we’ve been taught to believe some have while others don’t. The truth is, “luck” has a whole lot more to do with being open to the opportunities that come your way. The real challenge lies in being able to recognize exactly which opportunities will get you to where you want to be. Most of the time, it’s a person that will show you which chances to take. Not someone who will tell you what to do, but someone who will guide you, who will keep you on track.
In walk the mentor.
Historically speaking, the word ‘mentor’ as we’ve come to understand it, was first used in a French publication in 1699. Prior to this time, it was a word associated with Greek mythology, or rather, with Odysseus’ great friend and confidant, Mentor.
Today, a “mentor” refers to someone who imparts wisdom or knowledge to a less experienced colleague. Well-known (and fictional), mentor-mentee relationships include the ones between: Thoreau and Emerson, Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi, Warren Buffet and economist Benjamin Graham, Marc Benioff (CEO of Salesforce) and Steve Jobs, Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore, and many more. These types of relationships are not relegated to organizations like 500.co or Techstars, but are in fact a part of our own everyday lives.
For me, a close mentor during my Creative Writing MA, was my course tutor and novelist, Tricia Wastvedt. Rather than tell me how to write or where to take my story, her probing questions and gentle suggestions were exactly what I needed to improve my writing style and storytelling abilities.
While mentors often do appear in the form of teachers, you will find them in many other walks of life. Perhaps they’ll be family members, friends, managers, the CEO of your company, of a competing company, you name it. Whoever they are, they should be people you feel comfortable turning to for advice and guidance.
The mentor-mentee relationship isn’t just great for building confidence and learning more about your industry, but is a relationship you can hopefully capitalize on to help you grow your own business.
Founded in 1999 in Montreal, Canada, ice.com was recently acquired by Round 2 Inc., an ecommerce company headed by CEO Brandon Proctor. To grow the fine-jewelry business, Proctor first aims to use his “deep analytics expertise to take advantage of Ice.com’s massive brand loyalty.” For him, an immediate priority is boosting site-wide conversion rates.
I first came across Ice.com when I was searching for companies who could tell me more about the marketing tactics that had worked best for them. I did not initially intend to write about the value of business mentors, but the feedback I received from Ice.com’s own SEO Manager, Reed Daw, convinced me it would be business advice undispensed if I didn’t (his immense enthusiasm helped too).
According to Reed, there are a number of things that have helped give Ice.com a boost, including attending local networking events and meetup groups, improving and optimizing email marketing and, most importantly, their relationship with Capital Factory.
Reed cites this relationship as vital for a number of reasons:
- The mentor office hours and meetups that Capital Factory hosts every single day are free
- The mentors are experts in the field that you are trying to become an expert in
- They will answer any questions you ask
- They tell you what works and what doesn’t
- They will help you increase site traffic, improve brand awareness and boost sales
- They’ll steer you in the right direction, whether that’s finding new employees, software, etc
- • And most importantly, they will check up on your brand from time to time and spread brand awareness to their own network
In Reed’s own words,
“These mentor sessions have helped me fix countless site errors. They’ve helped clarify numerous developer issues I had no knowledge on beforehand, but now know everything about. They’ve helped me avoid spending days or weeks learning about something when all I needed was an expert’s opinion. Most importantly, they’ve helped me tap into and understand new audiences for our brand sitting idly by waiting for us to market to them.”
If companies like Ice.com that rake in millions of dollars annually, can attend mentor sessions to improve, why should we all not be doing as much? After all, there is no end to learning, especially from others within our industry. If nothing else, getting out and talking to people about your business is bound to increase brand awareness and ultimately, to improve sales.
Where to go to find a mentor
- Friends and family: Probably your best resources for helping you find someone you can trust and who will care enough to help you for free.
- Local meetups and networking groups: Like Ice, these groups, available in just about every city, will help you find the right people in the right industry.
- Companies in similar industries: If you can find someone in a similar industry who you can trust not to steal your ideas or sabotage your success—I’m being pessimistic—this is probably the best opportunity of all.
- Social media platforms: There’s nothing wrong with turning to social media to find people you learn from and who you connect with. Plus, if they’re active on Twitter, LinkedIn or Google+, you’ve got the added advantage of keeping tabs on what they’re reading and who they’re connecting to. Shameless advice: mine these connections.
- An incubator or a coworking space: This is especially helpful if you’re an internet startup business. And it’s likely to feel a lot more like a ‘family’ than competition. After all, you’re all in it to learn and help each other out.
- Government-sponsored organizations: These organizations include SCORE mentors (general mentoring advice for small business owners), Women’s Business Centers, Small Business Development Centers, MicroMentor and TiE Global (this one requires a membership fee).
- If you’re planning on mentoring for government contractors: If you plan on selling to the government, getting help and advice from The General Services Administration (GSA), won’t go amiss. You can also try the Small Business Administration’s own Mentor-Protégé Program.
Signs you’ve hit upon a good mentor
- The person has a positive, can-do attitude
- Openness and willingness to share knowledge, skills and business insight
- Someone you consider a role model—at the very least in a professional sense, but hopefully also on a personal level
- He/she is respected in the community and the industry
- You feel motivated to achieve, succeed and try after meeting with this person
- You feel comfortable sharing your thoughts and worries them
- Someone who values learning
- Someone who provides constructive feedback (not just criticism)
- Someone who takes a personal interest in you, your business and the combined success of both
How to recognize a poor mentor
- The advice you receive consistently results in a bad outcome. Either you’re not applying the suggestions well or your mentor does not know what he/she is talking about.
- You don’t trust them. If you are worried that your mentor is not being upfront with you, how can you trust the advice they give? How do you know you’re not being manipulated or simply used as an ego-booster?
- Someone who does not let you find your own path but who directs you along the one they have followed. Social psychology researchers have consistently found that we are attracted to those who are similar to us. While this may help us find the right mentors, it could equally mean we forget our own direction in favor of theirs.
- You know more than your mentor or your peers know more than your mentor. If this is the case you’re unlikely to learn anything new. This is also probably not indicative of a mentor-mentee relationship. Perhaps this person is more of a friend or colleague. If you want to benefit from the knowledge of someone with more experience than you in your industry, you will need to move on.
- Your mentor wants to hold your hand for every step you take.
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