Some of the most common advice for new entrepreneurs is to “find a mentor.”
It’s understandable—after all, it’s good advice; having a mentor relationship is often a dream come true. A mentor is a teacher, a trusted advisor that a budding entrepreneur can turn to with questions and get valuable advice, tailored directly to their industry and specific business situation.
But, how do you actually go about finding a mentor? While sometimes the relationship forms organically, it’s too much to hope that the perfect mentor will simply drop into your lap.
I reached out to several entrepreneurs, both those who have had experience as a mentor and as a mentee, to get their advice on how to find a mentor and establish this relationship.
Listen to Peter and Jonathan talk with Caroline Cummings about finding a mentor on the third episode of The Bcast, Bplan’s official podcast (at 12:44):
Click here to subscribe to The Bcast on iTunes »
We’ll go over where to find a mentor, including both general suggestions and specific online resources. Additionally, I’ve compiled a list of tips from these entrepreneurs about building the mentor relationship, how to approach your mentor, and how to get the most out of the relationship.
Where to start your search:
Look to your own network first
To answer the question of “How do I find a mentor?” with the simple reply of, “By networking!” is a bit maddening. We all know networking builds connections, but for new entrepreneurs, it can be hard to start.
So, when you start thinking about how to find a mentor via networking, think about building connections, rather than finding “the one.” Focus on expanding your network, and making connections with others in a variety of industries whom you can learn from.
“Consider your own network of connections,” says Susan Bender Phelps, owner of Odyssey Mentoring & Leadership. “Look at the top 20 to 30 people you currently do business with, who are not your customers. You are looking to see if one of them would be a match or if they can introduce you to someone who would be a match.”
However, turning a networking relationship into a mentor relationship can be intimidating. How do you make this transition?
To put it simply, by thinking less in terms of finding a mentor, but rather building relationships. “I am always on the lookout for the next great connection,” says Jarvis C. Stewart, chairman and chief strategist of IR+Media, LLC. “By constantly expanding my network I have surrounded myself with a diverse and resourceful group of mentors. Among them former colleagues, employers, and even clients who have at one point or another offered particularly salient insights.”
This sounds great, but how do you take such a diverse network group and narrow it down to one mentor? Jarvis advises thinking broadly when it comes to picking a mentor—don’t feel the need to limit yourself to your field alone. “My search criteria is simple: If you are here to teach me, I’m here to learn,” he says.
Use meetup groups to grow your network
Reaching out to those within your existing network is a great start, but when you are on the hunt for a mentor, you may need to expand your network. “Mentors usually gravitate toward outspoken, hardworking individuals. But, sometimes that’s not enough,” says CJ Johnson, head of creative and marketing for Buddytruk.
Sites like Meetup.com offer a vehicle for anyone to start any kind of group in your city, and with that comes a variety of networking groups, small business groups, and so on. “I recommend going to happy hour events, networking events, and speaking panels that are within your scope,” says CJ.
Go to any upcoming events in your field
Is there a local conference on an aspect of your technology? Maybe a prominent local business owner in your field is giving a speech? Attend events like these and use them to make contacts. “I also recommend that someone do some independent research into a field they’re interested in and visit some company websites that are within that field,” says CJ. “See what upcoming events they have coming up and try to attend. When you attend these events it’s okay to ask people for their business cards and hand out your own as well.”
Approaching a potential mentor this way takes out the “cold call” feeling that an email or a phone call might have on its own. Now, you’ve met and potentially had a brief chat with the person you’d be interested in having as a mentor, and you can start to build that relationship.
Use your alumni network, internship connections, or professors
If you’re wondering how to find a mentor while still in school, you likely have access to plenty of potential mentors already; your professors and any organizations you have completed internships with will make great starting points.
Check out your university’s business college website; they are likely to have an entrepreneurship center or mentorship program (living in Oregon I’ve naturally focused on two of my local universities, but you’ll likely find similar programs for your university).
If you’ve completed college, your alumni network may be worth looking into. “My most recent business mentor I found by reaching out to my alumni network,” says Tiffany C. Wright, serial entrepreneur and founder of investment firm The Resourceful CEO. “I met with [a potential mentor] and he connected me to a number of others. He then invited me to breakfast two weeks later. After that, we agreed to meet for breakfast at 7am every 2nd or 3rd week.”
Even if you have no connection to your local university, reaching out to professors in your field may be valuable, either in your city or remotely. “Some years ago, I wanted to develop classes and get them into academic programs. I didn’t know a lot about doing that,” says J. Todd Rhoad, managing director for Bt Consulting.
“Luckily, I had been reading a lot of entrepreneurial articles by a college professor. I contacted him and began a relationship with him. His expertise has been extremely helpful and now we do many activities together, such as writing books, articles, and creating classes. I simply sent him an email and set up a phone call to discuss my ideas.”
Join a professional association
“If you belong to a professional association, that is the first place you should look to find a mentor,” says Susan Bender Phelps. “Look for someone who is not a competitor in your market, and who has achieved the level of success you are aiming for.”
Tiffany agrees: “I found my first mentor through a business group I belonged to. She was very interesting to talk to so I asked her out to dinner (my treat of course). At the end of the dinner I asked her to be my mentor and she accepted.”
Professional associations are generally nonprofit groups dedicated to furthering a particular industry or profession, and as such can be a great place to find others in your industry who can potentially serve as mentors. Check out CareerOneStop, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor, to find relevant professional associations for your industry.
Take a long shot with your dream mentor
Is there someone in your field that you look up to immensely, who you’d just love to have as your mentor—but you’re worried that they wouldn’t be interested? That’s exactly the person you should be targeting.
Jillian Darlington, creator of the MomCo App, knew who she wanted as a mentor, but was afraid she was taking a long shot. “A few months ago, I reached out to one of my idols in the mom space to be a mentor. She founded one of the most popular websites for moms and I wanted to learn from the best,” Jillian says.
“I wasn’t sure if she would respond, but she did, and actually ended up coming over to my house to meet with me. We are great friends now. I wanted to be able to learn from someone that had already accomplished something similar to what I was trying to achieve.”
Asking someone that you truly admire to serve as your mentor may feel intimidating, but Jillian suggests going for it. “I highly recommend that people put themselves out there and find a mentor. Never be afraid to reach out to your hero, because they might turn into an incredible friend as well,” says Jillian. “My experience has been a total dream come true.”
Join an incubator or accelerator
Startup incubators and accelerators can help a new business grow, and with that comes valuable mentorship from experienced entrepreneurs. “I applied, pitched, and was accepted into BetaBlox—a Kansas City-based startup incubator—in June of 2014,” says Shane Park, CEO of Coinplay. “After six months of formal mentoring and lessons in running a startup, my mentors and I check in with each other periodically. If I have a question, I email them and we set up a meeting depending on the complexity of the issue.”
If you are interested in exploring an incubator or accelerator for your business, start by seeing what’s in your city and determining which one will fit your business best. “I would recommend entrepreneurs Google startup incubators and accelerators in their own town,” says Shane.
It’s important to note that not all small businesses will be a good fit for an incubator or accelerator; they are generally geared toward tech businesses. “Not everyone will get into one—nor do they exist everywhere,” says Shane. “But, if you’re fortunate enough to find one and make it in, the resources and help provided can really make a difference.”
Take advantage of online resources
In addition to sites like Meetup, there are plenty of online resources to help you find a mentor. Here are some free resources that are highly recommended:
- LinkedIn: You can join relevant industry groups on LinkedIn, and either directly inquire with someone you feel would be a good fit, or post to the group at large. The Women’s Mentorship Network is a great example of a general group that is geared toward matching mentors and mentees.
- Micromentor: This site connects mentors with mentees, for free. You can create a profile, complete a mentor request, and contact mentors.
- SCORE mentors: Either via email or in person, SCORE connects entrepreneurs with volunteer business mentors.
- Your local Small Business Development Center: Through the U.S. Small Business Administration, SBDCs provide businesses with financial, business planning, and other advice. While it may be more specific advice and less of a close-knit, mentor/mentee relationship, it may be a good starting point. You can find your local SBDC here.
- Women’s Business Centers, Veteran’s Business Outreach Centers, and Minority Business Development Agency through the SBA: If you feel that you qualify for one of the above, check to see if you have a local branch.
13 key tips from entrepreneurs
1. Ask yourself—do you need a coach or a mentor?
“The basic premise of the mentoring relationship is that you seek advice from someone who has already surpassed your entrepreneurial goals,” says personal development coach Zan Hogan of Happy Alley. “There is an assumption there that the mentor will have teaching or coaching skills, based on their professional experience.”
A mentor should serve as someone who can teach you, advise you, and pass on their experience. Is this really what you are looking for?
Zan suggests that before seeking out a mentor, you make sure that a mentor is actually what you are after. “Depending on your professional needs, it may be more beneficial to simply seek out someone with a specialized skill set like a business or transitional coach, for example,” she says.
2. Get to know them first
Don’t just jump headfirst into the mentor relationship; if you’re hoping to ask someone to be your mentor, get to know them first. “Don’t ask people to be your mentor—just start getting to know them,” says Ryan Naylor, founder and president of LocalWork. “Ask them to grab coffee or happy hour, ask them about themselves and their business, develop a relationship first.”
Artist and entrepreneur Ann Rea agrees. “Looking for a mentor is a lot like looking for a friend who just happens to be more experienced in one area,” she says. Ann, who incidentally was mentored by Caroline Cummings, our VP of product development here at Palo Alto Software, also advises thinking about the mentor relationship as that of “a friend who just happens to possess the professional expertise that you desire.”
3. Never start with the word “mentor”
So, if you’re focusing on establishing a relationship, does that mean you should avoid explicitly asking someone to be your mentor? Initially, it might be a good idea.
“Don’t use the word mentor!” says Ryan. “Build this relationship slowly—many people get turned off by the idea of ‘mentoring’ because it seems like a big time commitment or something they should be charging for as a consultant.”
Does that mean you should never ask someone to be your mentor outright? Not necessarily; it will depend on the situation. However, consider first focusing on building the relationship, and once it has been established, shift the conversation and making it clear that you would like them to mentor you.
4. Determine if you and your mentor have a good fit
“What is critically important is the fit,” says Tiffany. “You can determine the fit before making a formal request to someone to be your mentor. If there is no fit, at least you garnered more business insights and feedback that you would not have had you not reached out.”
How do you determine if you and your desired mentor are a good fit? By knowing what you are looking for, and having a clear vision, says Jarvis. “A mentor’s advice isn’t one size fits all, and you need to find someone who can relate to your entrepreneurial vision. Just because someone is successful doesn’t mean they’re the right mentor for you. Success in one area does not equate to expertise in another.”
5. Pick someone who does not have strong “ties” to your business
Maybe you’ve considered asking one of your investors to be your mentor; after all, you have a connection, they have expertise in your field, and they have an interest in your business.
However, this might not be the best idea. “You need to find someone not emotionally or financially tied to your business,” says Walter Wise, sales and marketing strategist and executive coach at BPI Strategy Group.
Why? “Because you need to be told what you need to hear not what someone thinks you want to hear,” says Walter. “Family, friends, partners, and some investors will tend to sugar coat their advice, whereas a real coach or mentor should tell it like it is. You need real advice, not fluff.”
6. Express genuine interest
Make sure you are truly interested in what your mentor has to say, and you’ll be well on your way to building a strong relationship.
“When you express a genuine interest in what someone else is doing, they’ll usually tell you how they did it—and be elated to offer the knowledge,” says David Ward, president of Meticulosity LLC. “Maybe it’s a an ego thing, but I think it is because most entrepreneurs are a special breed who are excited to share with other entrepreneurs.”
This is another test of whether or not you and your mentor will be a good fit—if you find yourself disinterested, it might be a sign that the fit isn’t there.
7. Make yourself worth mentoring
Just because you want a mentor, doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily good mentee material. How can you make yourself worth mentoring? Jarvis suggests making sure you look the part, and actually following up. “Don’t hit and run,” he says. “If you ask for their card, follow up.”
Making yourself worth mentoring includes doing your homework and being prepared. “You have to do the work,” says Ann. “I know a serial entrepreneur who has mentored many to millions. If a mentee says that they are going to do something and they don’t, he drops them. No second chances. He says ‘I love helping people who are willing to help themselves, but I’m not wasting my time with people who don’t want to work.’”
8. Don’t overlook someone who isn’t in your specific industry
“You will not find a mail-order mentor, so don’t limit yourself to one industry,” says Jarvis. Keep yourself open to mentors from industries outside your own; though they may not be able to get into the specifics of, say, industry analysis with you, they can still be a valuable teacher and advisor.
9. Never pay for a mentor
“Be sure that the people who you are asking to mentor you do not normally charge for their expertise,” says Ann.
Paul Dillon of Dillon Consulting Services LLC, adds: “You should never, never pay for a mentor. You need to find someone who will do this because they want to do it, not because they are compensated to give you counsel and advice.”
10. Confirm that the relationship is a mentor/mentee relationship
But wait—tip #3 said not to use the term “mentor,” right? Well, yes, at first; it’s not a great idea to rush up to your hero at a conference and beg them to mentor you before you’ve introduced yourself.
However, once you have established a connection and determined that the relationship is a good fit, it’s time to officially ask if they will be your mentor. “Having an agreed upon, mutually understood mentorship relationship is key to its serving both parties and being productive,” says Brynn Winegard of Winegard & Company.
Not only that, but failing to inform your mentor that you view them as such can potentially damage the relationship. “Treating someone as a mentor that doesn’t know this is how you view them can also be harmful—they can’t be sure what you want from them and you can’t be sure what feedback you are getting,” adds Brynn.
11. Have something to offer back
“Remember, mentors have other things to do,” says Ann. “They are doing you a big fat favor, so never take them for granted.”
Make sure that your mentor knows how grateful you are for their time, and see if you can offer them something in return—even if it’s as simple as being an ear to bounce ideas off of.
“The mentoring relationship must have value for both parties to be successful,” says Todd. “Anything less will end up in a waste of your time.”
12. Take your mentor’s advice with a grain of salt
While your mentor serves as a teacher, guide, and advisor, not everything they say is set in stone. “Your mentor is not you,” says Brynn. “They don’t have your exact experiences, perspectives, ideas, needs, wants, goals, nor do you have theirs.”
Ann adds: “You don’t have to do everything that a mentor suggests. You are the boss of you. But if they offer you advice and you agree to take action, take action.”
13. Be clear about your expectations and the end goal
Ann recommends clearly establishing what the mentor/mentee relationship will look like. “Once someone agrees to mentor you, then set up very clear boundaries and expectations about what mentoring will look like,” she says.
She advises that both the mentor and mentee agree on the following points:
- What specific goal are they helping you work toward?
- Will you meet once a week, once a month, for how long?
- Will you email them a regular update?
In addition to establishing clearly what both of your expectations are surrounding the relationship, be clear about your goals. A broad statement such as, “I want business help” isn’t enough; make sure to clearly define what you hope to gain from the mentor relationship.
The takeaway? There’s more than one path.
You know the phrase, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat?”
While a little on the gruesome side, the point of the idiom rings true here: There is more than one way to establish a mentor relationship.
While sometimes the perfect situation may present itself organically, you may have to “try on” several mentors before you find the winning relationship.
However, if you let the relationship build by developing a connection first and—once a good fit has been determined—establish a mentor relationship with clear expectations and goals, you’re well on your way to reaping the benefits of having a business mentor.
How did you find a mentor for your business?