Startup Secrets is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization and donations are deductible to the extent permitted by law. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
If you’re new to entrepreneurship, or a particular market, you may want to enlist the help of a mentor to get you through some of the trickier spots along your roadmap. A mentor can help guide you with their experience, knowledge, and expertise in a particular market, or in a particular area, like hiring or funding.
Often, mentorship isn’t a subject that’s taught in entrepreneurship schools or other programs. But, being a mentor or receiving mentorship isn’t always the easiest thing to do. While we have another lesson on how to be a mentor, this lesson will walk through how to receive mentorship, and give back to your mentor.
The first question we often see is: how do I find a mentor? Well, start out by understanding that mentorship is a gift. Even if you’re hiring someone to mentor you, the relationship and the mentorship is always a gift. How often do you give gifts to someone you don’t know? Never! So, work on finding people who are, for some reason or another, connected to you. Find some history with them, whether they were a professor, coworker, or boss.
You can reach out to professional mentors, sure, but some of the best mentorships will come from people with whom you already have relationships. Building off of previous relationships will be much easier than starting from scratch. You’ll want to look to this person for advice, so make them feel like they want to give you the gift of mentoring.
We also suggest that you write down a list of expectations and requirements and work around them. Figure out what you’re looking for in a mentor. Is it industry expertise? Is it experience with hiring and PR? Is it a massive network? Think about qualities, time expectations, and the area of assistance you’re looking for. Be really explicit about what you think a great mentor does for you.
When you go out to find a relationship to build on, the person doesn’t have to meet all the items on your list! But, you can start with having a conversation with your potential mentor about expectations, and what each of you can bring to the table. Think about what time commitments you want, and whether or not that person meets enough of the items on your list that you can work with them. That conversation will be the beginning of understanding whether or not it’s the right fit.
We really encourage you to find cross-disciplined mentors, and to remember that you can have multiple mentors. Find people outside of your field, who have nothing to do with your industry but may be familiar with your distribution ideas, or your funding model. Find different skills in different people, to build up a network of mentors around you that will be able to support you in different areas.
Most importantly, always keep in mind that a great mentor is not a person who gives you answers, but a person who asks questions. A great mentor will make you think critically and honestly about your own problems instead of trying to solve them for you. They should frame the way to find answers: starting a business is a process of discovery, and great mentors help the entrepreneur find those answers without handing over solutions that may not always be right for a new business, a new market, or a new entrepreneur.
At Startup Secrets, we think everyone is a possible mentor. If you’re helping someone in class, in a seminar, or in online spaces like our forums, you’re helping mentor them! Your peers often won’t be rockstars, and often won’t be in touch with what you’re doing. But they will also bring in new and exciting perspectives that aren’t entrenched in past ideas about how businesses are run.
If you think about it, where could you get better mentorship than from your co-founder? Or from other entrepreneurs? It can’t hurt to find multiple people to help you build up your company. The great thing about peer mentors is that they’re often helping themselves while they’re helping you, and vice versa. You’re all asking the same questions about how to start your businesses, and you’ll learn from every step in the process. We definitely encourage you go to find people on multiple levels and ask lots of questions to help you find new frameworks for thinking.
Another great place to find mentors that entrepreneurs often overlook is within their target market. Customers, or potential customers, can be a great resource for new entrepreneurs to understand what their customers are thinking, how well they’re positioned in the market, and what direction their company should take.
Get outside of your building, and your environment. Talk to potential suppliers, partners, and others that are involved in your marketplace. Don’t be afraid to reach out to customers and ask them questions that will help guide you. Customers are often a hugely untapped resource for entrepreneurs, and you should take advantage of your customers’ market expertise and knowledge.
Ask the hard questions of these outside market experts! You might learn something from asking easy questions, but you’ll definitely learn something by asking the hard questions. Consider these questions to get you started:
Building up a relationship with your mentor can seem daunting, especially if you’re working with someone you’ve never interacted with before. Even if you deeply respect a potential mentor, it’s especially difficult to work with someone if you don’t get along with them, whether it’s because of basic chemistry, cultural differences, or something else. So you want to be careful about building up this relationship in a way that will work for both you and your mentor.
The first thing to figure out is: do you just have one question? Is this one-off help? Or do you need continuous help and a longer relationship? It’s very rare that an entrepreneur is only going to have one question as they start their business, so you’re more than likely going to need someone to work with you over a long period of time. You’re going to continually need help with areas like hiring since often entrepreneurs don’t intend to start a business that’s going to stop growing.
We’re all trying to build up our businesses to the successes we believe they can be. As you’re continually growing, it’s likely that you’ll need to maintain relationships with mentors that have skills and experiences that will help you move past the continuous challenges you’ll face along your path.
Our first suggestion is that once you’ve found a mentor, give them a sense of what you’re trying to achieve. Be clear about your purpose, and make them understand your context. From there, establish expectations for both of you: how often will you check in with each other? What sort of time commitment do you both need? Does that person have the qualities that you’ve laid out as necessary for the relationship?
From there, build frameworks together. If you don’t know how you’re going to work together, create some clarity around what your goals are. Create frameworks that allow you both to stay on the same page with your thinking. Create a common language so there aren’t any misunderstandings. If you establish those expectations early on, you’ll move much more easily through the process of mentorship.
There are going to be times when you’re exhausted, and frustrated, and scared. You’ve poured your whole life into your business, and it won’t always go as well as you dream it will. But remember: there is no failure, only learning. So, you’ll want a safe relationship with your mentor. You should be able to tell them everything: your worst fears, your greatest challenges, your moments of darkness.
A mentor should be able to help you when you’re getting frustrated. They’ll help you calm down, take a deep breath, and try again tomorrow. Have them help you reframe the problem and look at it differently. It’s often not as bad as you thought! But your mentor should also temper your enthusiasm, and make you more realistic about your path as a whole. Here’s a Startup Secret: in business, things are never as bad as they seem. However, they’re also rarely as good as they seem.
Maintaining a relationship with a mentor isn’t always the easiest things to do, but we have some tips about how to check in and see how you’re doing. Relationships are living things, especially with mentorship. If someone gave you business advice five years ago, will it always apply? No! You, your business, and your mentor are constantly evolving. The world changes! So go back and re-check with your mentors as things evolve.
Our first tip is to establish fidelity. Always make sure that you’re on the same page as your mentor by asking some easy questions: Did I hear this right? Did you mean this? Asking these simple questions and confirming what your mentor is saying will help you avoid miscommunication, and will push you to understand the entire conversation. It also makes the mentor feel better about helping you: everyone likes knowing that they’ve been heard, even if there’s disagreement!
Our second tip is to check in with your mentor regularly. Have these as often as makes sense for you, but set aside time to talk about your relationship and whether or not things are working well for both of you. You can ask questions like:
Tell your mentor if the experience isn’t working for you. Both of you should be encouraging and giving each other feedback constantly, but sometimes a mentor will just be wrong for you. If the relationship is just uncomfortable at the start, have some conversations about it and work it out together. Think about why you picked each other, and remember what you each bring to the table. However, if you just don’t work well together, move on.
When you receive mentorship from your mentor, there are a few things you should keep in mind, and we have a few tips for how to best understand and react to mentorship. Remember that mentorship is usually only a part of the solution to your problem. If you’ve met a mentor who can tell the future, we want to meet them! No one really knows what’s going to happen. So the focus of your conversations with your mentor is to try and figure out where the conversation is leading, and what it is that you, from a personal standpoint, might do in the future.
We like to use the metaphor of chess here. You don’t want your mentor to just give you the next move, you want them to teach you how to play the game! You need to understand the strategy and the process behind building your business, so you need to figure out how to draw that out of your mentor and yourself. Read on to learn some tips for how to get the most out of your mentorship.
It’s one of our big tips in our lesson on how to mentor: ask more questions! You should be asking questions of your mentor, and encouraging them to ask questions of you as well. Don’t be afraid to say, “You’ve given me a lot of great thoughts, but I’d like you to ask more questions.” If you can’t get that out of your mentor, they may not be right for you!
Don’t get stuck on the same questions over and over again. If you’re continually having a problem, that’s really frustrating. Have your mentor help you figure out how you got stuck last time or the time before. What was the series of events that led to frustration?
Always work to reframe the questions and contexts that you have. Think about how you can reframe things in a way that can establish what kind of information you’re looking for. Ask your mentor questions, and then ask them how they got to that conclusion. Try to understand the process behind every answer, so you can start to learn the game!
And, if your mentor doesn’t know the answer to a question, or isn’t sure where to start, ask them who they know! A big part of mentoring is networking, and a good mentor will network you. So even if they don’t know the right answer, they may know someone who will. Use the tools that are out there! But also remember that if a mentor does disappear, you’ll lose access to their network. Instead of losing that network, ask your mentor how they went about building the network, and you might be able to replicate building a network to find the answers to your own questions.
If you ask your mentor a question, and take their answer without talking to other people, you’re missing a huge opportunity to ask other people about their perspectives. No one person knows everything, so it’s helpful to get brainstorming going in discussions with different people, or even a group. Groups are great for bouncing ideas off of each other, and asking what people think. Would they take the same steps? Why or why not? What are the things you would’ve thought through?
It’s important to understand that some mentors are great on a personal level, helping with team-building. Others are great for financial advice. Others might be great in your marketplace and positioning. And those are all very different skills! So reach out to multiple people and get several perspectives. There’s nothing wrong with having multiple mentors. The key is, can you manage the synthesis of the information you get from multiple mentors?
One piece of advice here: listen to everyone whom you respect, but keep your own counsel. Ultimately, this is your business and you have to make the decisions about how to proceed. You will get conflicting advice: expect it. And test your mentor relationships through this lens: how do they respond when you don’t take their advice? Do they ask good framing questions (e.g., “Why did you make that decision? What were the input factors we didn’t consider together?”) or do they take offense and try to defend why they thought they were right? A mentor who always expects you to follow their advice is likely not a great mentor!
And, if you can’t take on too many mentors, don’t! Take as many as you can afford with your time, energy, and other resources. Make sure you’re comfortable taking in the information they’re giving, and you don’t feel overwhelmed by too many different perspectives. But multiple viewpoints often gives better answers!
Here’s a big one: trust yourself! Even if a famous entrepreneur becomes your mentor, and you think they know everything about business, ask yourself: do they know more about your company than you do? No! You’ve got to be your own, innovative thinker. Good mentors will try to get you to explore, and get creative. They won’t take their first answer from their history, because that isn’t going to create solutions for tomorrow. However, often they’re speaking from a place in history, about what they’ve done in the past. But entrepreneurship is all about innovative and breakthrough thinking, so be original in your thought processes and your decisions.
Also think about what advice you should use. Do you think you should use all the advice you get? No! Should you filter carefully? Yes. This is very critical; often, people feel like someone high-profile or inspiring should know all the answers, and their answers to your questions must be true. But they don’t know you! So in most cases, those people are less likely to be at the grass roots with you, understanding what you’re actually doing.
So, trust yourself in filtering that information. Ask yourself, does this apply to your situation? Where are you right now in your process? Does this literally work in the way in which you’re working today? How might you do something different?
As we’ve been saying throughout this article, it’s necessary to synthesize the information you get, filter carefully, and apply to your own situations. Don’t just take the answers to your questions and move on. Even if you understand the answer, and the process behind the answer, you then ask yourself: what do I think about it? How will I do something differently? How will I innovate around this? Answering those questions for yourself leads to breakthrough thinking, and is often where really exciting opportunities emerge.
As you’re interpreting the information from your mentor, think about how you hear your mentor. Sometimes a mentor will give you advice, and you won’t think it’s relevant, or you’re so wound up in your own context and way of approaching problems that you can’t understand the mentor’s responses. Even if you can’t process it at the moment, write it down! Record it in some way. Often, you’ll find yourself coming back to the advice later and understanding the context now that you’ve had some time to think about it.
Often, people will come and say to their mentors, “Oh no, I thought you meant…” But how do you avoid that? By establishing fidelity, like we talked about earlier. Record what your mentor says, and ask them what they meant and how they got to that conclusion. Confirm it right away so there are fewer misunderstandings. Record everything your mentor says if you have to! You can always ask questions later. But often, this is a great practice for your own understanding, and to reinforce a positive relationship with your mentor when they feel like they’re being heard.
If you get advice you disagree with or don’t understand, talk to your mentor about it. Why do they believe in that advice? Why is it important? And even if you disagree with them after asking questions, and you decide not to use the advice, maybe you can understand why your mentor is thinking that way and extract something from it.
Our last Startup Secret of the lesson: Don’t take advice blindly. Take it mindfully. This is your life, and your business. You should be making your own decisions, for your own reasons. You’re investing your life in this, so even if a mentor is telling you something, or an investor is telling you something else, remind yourself that you’re in charge here. It may be their money and their expertise, but it’s not their company!
As we said earlier, try to approach mentorship with the idea that you’re looking to learn how to play the game, not just what the next move should be. If you can learn process and strategy, through asking questions, recording, and reframing problems, you’ll be more successful in your ventures. As you’re receiving mentorship, you should also read through our article on how to be a mentor, to understand the other side of the relationship.
To learn more about mentorship, check out the related resources below and our original workshop on Mastering Mentorship, and then head to our forums or the comment section below with any questions or comments you may have.