My father (still an active octogenarian entrepreneur) taught me years ago that every entrepreneur needs a three legged stool of support – an attorney who knows business law, a CPA, and a banker. With all due respect to my father, I believe there is a fourth leg to that stool that is equally important – a mentor.
For each of the legs of this stool you need to take care to pick the right person for you. Just because a certain attorney has a great reputation and is recommending by others does not always mean that there will be a fit with your business, and more importantly, a fit with you. Ideally, the people who serve as your four legs of support will become an advisory team that you can trust to offer clear-eyed advice in good times and in bad.
Finding a banker, CPA and attorney for your business is rather straightforward. Talk to other entrepreneurs and other people who know business to get a list of professionals to consider. Meet with each to find one that truly is a good fit with you and your business, and who can provide any specific expertise you may need.
But finding the right mentor is not as straightforward. It is not as simple as doing a web search or talking to other entrepreneurs. The right mentor may come from your networking in the business community. He or she may come from your circle of family and friends. Your mentor may be a professor or an advisor you secured through programs like SCORE.
Finding a mentor is not like hiring an attorney or setting up your accounts with a banker. It is more like a friendship that naturally kindles and then grows in intensity over time. You can never really choose a mentor – it just seems to happen.
So what makes a good business mentor?
A Dreamkiller, not a Cheerleader. Entrepreneurs seem to always have plenty of cheerleaders. Family and friends are there for encouragement and lifting your spirits. A good mentor is someone who will tell you the truth — even if it hurts. My students and alumni will sometimes refer to being “Cornwalled”. When they bring their ideas or fledgling businesses to me for advice, my job is to try to find every weak spot, every possible flaw, every vulnerability they face in the competitive market. One student once said to me, “Dr. Cornwall, you are such a Dreamkiller.” As much as I would love to join the ranks of cheerleaders, I know that my role has to be to help ensure they get their business right and find their way to be able to thrive in the market.
Trust. A mentor should be someone you can share your wildest dreams and your darkest fears. A mentor often acts more as a therapist than technical advisor. The stress and strain of starting a growing a business can become overwhelming. A good mentor is someone who can listen and empathize with these struggles.
Wisdom from Experience. Find a mentor who has “been there and done that.” They may not have all the answers, but they have enough experience to be able to help the entrepreneur navigate through difficult times.
Network. Along with their experience also comes their network. A mentor can help connect with possible customers, suppliers, funding sources, and so forth.
When you find a person who is willing to invest the time and energy it takes to be a true mentor, cherish that relationship. I appreciate the support and guidance I received from my father and the other mentors in my life. And when the time comes to become a mentor for others, remember all of those who helped you throughout your entrepreneurial journey.