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Do you need a mentor for your startup?

Dec 6, 2015 | Entrepreneurship

We are all very familiar with the term, but how many of us really know what a mentor is supposed to do? Generally, we assume a mentor is someone who encourages us to maximise our potential by helping us develop the right skill sets and make the right business decisions. But in reality, how does this manifest? Is it an ongoing learning process, a structured development plan, or simply a few sage words of advice at the right time?

In the case of Mark Zuckerberg, it was that last one. The Facebook founder spoke of the guidance offered to him by “his mentor” Steve Jobs, whereby the Apple owner told Zuckerberg to build a team that’s as focused as he was “on building high quality and good things.” This combination of praise and encouragement from a man Zuckerberg looked up to struck a chord with the young entrepreneur, and he often praised Jobs for his help and support over the years. Most notably he thanked the late Apple CEO by saying he had helped him realise that “what you build can change the world.”

Of course, just how much influence Jobs had on Zuckerberg’s success is impossible to say. Perhaps none at all, in fact. Zuckerberg’s Facebook was, after all, well on its way to stardom by the time the two crossed paths. But on the other hand, when someone you have such a massive level of respect for tells you to build a team that is focused on quality and bringing excellence to the world, that one single piece of advice may lead you to raise the bar dramatically, essentially upping your standard of quality and influencing everything from who you hire to where you want to take the company. And that would certainly have an impact on your overall business success going forward.

Again, we will never know. But studies have been carried out on mentoring worth taking a look at. For example, a recent one by Mentor Cloud found that corporate mentorship programs have the potential to increase productivity by 88%. As for the startup scene, the Small Firms Enterprise Development Initiative recently reported that 70% of small businesses that receive mentoring survive for five years or more – double the rate of those who do not receive mentoring.

70% of small businesses that receive mentoring survive for five years or more – which is double the rate of those who do not receive mentoring.

At this stage you are probably convinced that finding a good mentor is the way to go. Actually, not so fast. This article looks at both sides of the coin. Let’s continue with the pros before then turning to the cons.

Why should I find a mentor?

Perhaps the biggest advert for the power of mentors comes from the fact that some of the most successful entrepreneurs in the world today staunchly support the idea, and have personal stories to share of their own relationships with mentors. We have already looked at the case of Zuckerberg and Jobs, but there are also the examples of Bill Gates and Richard Branson, both of whom credit their mentors – Warren Buffet for Gates and Sir Freddie Laker for Branson – with guiding them on the path to their incredible success.

Let’s start by taking a look at what exactly a mentor is there to do. First off, they are not there to hold your hand and make decisions for you. They are, as Forbes puts it, there to “fill your knowledge gaps and seek opportunities to help you grow and excel.” An entrepreneur-mentor relationship is as much a personal one as it is professional, and so a good mentor should lead by example rather than simply offering direction and advice. Another way to put it is that the role of the mentor is to demonstrate exactly why any particular piece of advice or guidance should be taken or acted upon – and so a history of actually having “been there done that” goes a lot further than just words.

Now let’s address the benefits of having a mentor. First and foremost, there are the obvious face value advantages: your mentor will have had some business success and with that comes an array of contacts and inside knowledge that can be invaluable to entrepreneurs just starting out. Of course, with these successes there will have been some failures as well, and so a good mentor can pass on lessons learned that can help you avoid making the same mistakes.

Having a mentor by your side can also alleviate common feelings of isolation that many first-time entrepreneurs may feel – and I cannot stress enough how important this one is for me. Going that first business alone can be a hugely isolating experience, which can have a major impact on your confidence levels – bringing at times a completely disproportionate level of doubt and insecurity to the situation. Not only can your mentor act as a sounding board for your ideas and vision, but he or she can also offer a degree of peer support which many don’t have when self-employed – and that is often what gets one through the most difficult startup periods when success is still nothing but a hope and a dream.


Although I can go on about the positives of having a mentor, I’ll leave it on this note: a good mentor should be able to spot your key talents and advise you on how best to harness them, as well as help you fill in the gaps and get you stronger where you need to get stronger. Just as importantly, however, he or she should also be able to be a true sounding board with respect to the actual challenges you face that are specific to your industry. So the point to be taken: You need that wisdom, but it can’t be too general or random.

Why a mentor may not be for you

It is fun at times to play Devil’s advocate, so let’s get to it.

It has to be said that despite the many mentor success stories, being mentored is not for everyone and many entrepreneurs take little value from the process. For starters, no one, regardless of whether they have “been there and done that” is going to understand the inner workings of your business like you. For most entrepreneurs, in the beginning, you are your business, and the amount of time you spend developing your product or service means you will have little patience for a mentor who can’t properly grasp what you are building – because you may end up feeling that their advice is irrelevant or even counterproductive.

As you may have picked up on, I have been referring to the benefits of finding a good mentor, and that word “good” is absolutely key: for a “bad” mentor is far worse than no mentor at all. Simply having a mentor is not enough to generate success, it must be the right mentor, one that wholeheartedly believes in your vision and is committed to helping you achieve it. This was highlighted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin and the Marquette University who found that workers who were dissatisfied with their mentorship didn’t fare any better than those who had no mentor at all.

There’s also the argument that relying on the guidance of a mentor can create a sense of tunnel vision, whereby entrepreneurs hang too much emphasis on the words of a single person. This can lead entrepreneurs to become over-dependant on their mentors as they essentially end up basing their every business decision on the advice of a single individual. That can be a trap that is hard to get out of, and it begs the question: Who, ultimately, is running the business?

Finally, no matter how much experience a mentor has in your industry, as we all know, business is not an exact science and what has worked for your mentor in the past may not necessarily work for you now. Therefore, finding a mentor who is able to adapt to the challenges you currently face rather than advising you simply by experience is key to overcoming this. A truly valuable mentor brings not only wisdom to the table, but smarts as well, and without a heavy dose of the latter the former is not going to be all that valuable when it comes to helping guide you on one of life’s most difficult challenges – that is, building and running a business.

No matter how much experience a mentor has in your industry, business is not an exact science and what has worked for your mentor in the past may not necessarily work for you now.

Finding the right mentor

It should be clear by now that the question here is not really do you need a mentor, but whether you can find the right one. If not, leave it. Yes, a mentor can be of huge benefit to entrepreneurs, but the wrong one can get in the way and possibly slow down progress or actually harm the business if the entrepreneur being mentored is still in the “early growth phase” on both the business and professional-personal level – and therefore far too easily influenced.

Advice for finding one? This may seem a bit tricky. After all, not everyone who would make a good mentor wants to be a mentor. And can you find someone in your circle that is truly on the level you require and has time to give you? Gates and Zuckerberg and others like them were naturally brought into contact with their mentors because, let’s face it, they travel in those circles.

But it’s actually not that tricky – even if you don’t have those “self-made billionaire” contacts. If you are in the startup scene here in Dubai, simply get out there and network. There are so many successful business owners in this town and by regularly getting out there and socialising on a business and personal level you will inevitably come across many of them. Start small – with a casual conversation – taking the bits of advice you get. You will know when that advice is coming from someone you truly respect. And when it does, continue to stay in touch, and if the relationship develops into one where the other party is ok with you regularly checking in for advice and guidance and seems happy to give it, that mentor relationship will start to take shape.


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