Budding entrepreneurs can find a valuable mentor from a wide variety of sources, from investors to those met through networking events.
But some of the best mentors can be found where you least expect them – among family, friends and casual acquaintances.
Finding an informal mentor might sound relatively easy, particularly if you have plenty of family and friends willing to be your guiding light.
But is there more to an informal arrangement than meets the eye? And how do you ensure you’re getting the most out of it?
StartupSmart spoke to three experts to determine how every soloist should go about finding a brilliant but informal mentor:
1. Sourcing informal advice
Adam Levine, founder of Rockwell Group Holdings, says the source of informal mentorship is not as important as the mindset of the person you opt to have as your mentor.
“Whether or not your mentor is a family member, friend, colleague or someone completely external to your business sector, he or she must be positive, supportive and constructive in the advice they give you,” he says.
“Stay away from inherently negative people or those who are just naysayers.”
Michelle Rowan, a freelancer product manager and start-up generalist, isn’t a fan of using friends and family members as informal mentors because their advice is often biased.
“In addition, they often do not understand the context of the idea or understand your particular position, industry or role,” Rowan says.
“I usually start by asking my colleagues and/or ex-colleagues if they are able to assist or know of anyone who can.
“If I can’t find someone in my immediate network, I use a variety of methods, from targeted email introduction requests to social networks like LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.”
Simon Dale, who works with start-ups in his role at business software provider SAP, says another way soloists can start is by doing a Google search on the experts in their industry.
“First and foremost should be the identification of someone who has ‘been there, done that’, aligned to what your objective is,” he says.
“I mentor a lot at SAP, and most people are looking at mentoring as a way to help get over challenges in either their business goals or career goals.
“In a small business context, finding someone who has that relevant experience is the first step.”
2. Structuring an informal arrangement
Dale says every soloist needs to determine whether the mentor they choose is in fact a good fit, before defining expectations on both sides in terms of duration, frequency, topic boundaries, etc.
These things should happen in the very first chat, he says.
“Once expectations are set, then it’s down to driving to agreed objectives/outcomes, and check-pointing at pre-agreed times such as quarterly or annual review points,” he says.
Rowan, meanwhile, stresses the importance of picking a convenient location and being prepared for meetings in advance.
“Pick a location that is easy for the mentor to get to, and make sure you have an agenda in mind for every meeting and be specific with your questions,” she says.
“The more thought you put into the meeting, the more you will get out of it.”
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3. Ensuring it lasts the distance
According to Levine, any informal mentoring arrangement should be primarily focused on mutual respect.
“You need to respect the fact that your mentor is providing you with expertise, guidance and their time, and in return you should help them in any way you can,” he says.
“This could take form as a small favour, a networking introduction or even buying them lunch.”
It doesn’t always need to be about equity or payment, Levine points out.
“This can be included in some arrangements but isn’t what will make your mentoring relationship go the distance. Mutual respect will,” he says.
Rowan says you also need to demonstrate to your mentor that their advice was meaningful.
“For instance, if they gave you advice and you incorporated it into your plan, show them the results,” she says.
“If you choose not to incorporate their advice, you better have a good reason for not doing it or else the mentor can feel like they are wasting their time.”
4. Getting the most out of one-on-one help
Dale says it’s up to the mentee – not the mentor – to “own the process” and “take care of all logistics” with regard to the arrangement.
“Everything should remain in-confidence unless formally agreed otherwise,” he says.
“Frequency depends on the agreed relationship, and any timelines for actions between meetings – actions received from the mentor are good, and should be expected.
“If they are not forthcoming then the mentor may not be a good fit.”
Rowan says it is also helpful to ask your mentor if you can shadow them.
“For instance, if you want to learn more about how they do their work, volunteer some of your time to help out at their work,” she says.
“For example, if you’re trying to understand agile product management, ask if you can sit in on a sprint planning session and offer to take note of new feature requests.
“Just observing how someone else works can be extremely valuable – participant observation is one of the easiest ways to gain insights into someone else’s life.”
5. Mistakes to avoid
Levine says it’s important not to bombard people and take advantage by calling all the time.
“Build up your questions and ask them at once. By doing this, you will find many questions are similar in nature and likely lead to a broader discussion,” he says.
“Specifics about a person, employee or business transaction should be discussed with a specialist, i.e. an accountant or lawyer.
“Discussions with a mentor should be broader discussions and strategic in nature. These discussions should give you guidance, and support you as you establish and implement your unique modus operandi.”