In 2015, Chris Gonzalez and his co-founders at Barkly Pets launched their online marketplace for dog walkers. They had an ambitious expansion plan, which they have executed on with the help of a mentor they found through SCORE, a nonprofit that partners with the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Today, the company has 15 full-time employees who work with thousands of dog walkers.
“There are lots of things that are challenging and unexpected when you start a business, so it was great to have an experienced mentor who had been an executive and an angel investor," said Gonzalez. “You want people with skin in the game to work with you, but it's also great to have a mentor without skin in the game so you can have an open and frank relationship."
Mentors can be crucial to the success of a business as well as offer a variety of benefits on both sides of the relationship.
MicroMentor, a free global matching program that helps entrepreneurs and mentors find each other through algorithms, conducted the 2018 MicroMentor Impact report, and found that 75 percent of entrepreneurs globally who received mentoring increased their revenue and 82 percent survived their first one or two years in business, a crucial hurdle for startups.
The report also found that the top five skills entrepreneurs reported had improved with mentoring were: determining a competitive price for their product or service; managing their financial assets; reading and interpreting financial statements; estimating the amount of funding needed; and designing an effective marketing plan.
But mentors also benefit from helping other entrepreneurs. The MicroMentor study found that 84 percent of mentors felt that mentoring was relevant to their professional and personal growth. According to the report, the top areas of improvement for mentors include leadership and coaching skills, the ability to motivate others, critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration skills and the ability to develop innovative solutions.
“Being an entrepreneur can be lonely, so it helps to surround yourself with people who are just as passionate as you are and who want to work hard to build their business," said Sheila Neisler, owner of Catalyst Gets Results, a marketing business in Holiday, Fla. and co-chair of the Pinellas County, Fla. chapter of SCORE. “The best part of being mentored is that someone sees your challenge with impartial eyes and sees the overall impact of your decisions."
There are both short- and medium-term impacts for mentors and entrepreneurs, said Emily Joy, client success officer for MicroMentor.
“Mentors and entrepreneurs have told us that the relationship increases their confidence and develops their skills, which lead to better decisions," Joy said. “Those better decisions lead to business growth."
Mentors help business owners stay accountable to their goals and uncover their blind spots, said Joy, and mentors say they get more than they give because of the fulfilling nature of helping other business owners.
Mentors work in small groups or one-on-one through JumpStart, Inc., a Cleveland-based program designed to foster growth among high tech entrepreneurs and to help local businesses grow in underserved communities, according to William A. Nemeth, director of JumpStart's Burton D. Morgan Mentoring Program.
“Our mentors serve as coaches to help resolve disputes between business co-founders, to help them create pitch decks, to make sales calls – really, anything a business owner needs," said Nemeth.
JumpStart's mentors have expertise in legal issues, supply issues, B2B and B2C communications, sales and customer service, all of which they use to create a support team for businesses that can last for a few months or several years.
“There's an intrinsic value for mentors in helping people that's similar to the feeling people get when they coach kids' sports teams," said Nemeth. “They also value the networking opportunities with business owners and other mentors."
For many entrepreneurs, being held accountable for their goals is a prime focus of their mentoring relationship.
“A huge benefit to me when I lead small mentoring groups is that I have to meet my goals too, when I hold everyone else accountable," said Neisler.
Neisler prefers face-to-face mentoring, but a variety of options are available, including Skype calls, emailing, group sessions and one-on-one meetings.
“Candor is key on both sides of a mentoring relationship," said Nemeth. “It may not be pleasant, but there's a lot of value in telling someone the equivalent of 'your baby's ugly' when they're making a big business mistake."
Through SCORE, Gonzalez and his Barkly Pets partners met every other month in person with their mentor and communicated often via email for three years. To this day, they continue to connect with their mentor occasionally.
“We intended to build a large company from the start and as we attracted venture capital it helped that we had professional advice to help us through all the legal things that can be a minefield when you're new to business," said Gonzalez. “Our mentor primarily gave us advice on our finances and legal issues. We didn't really need help with accountability because we were good at executing our goals."
When entrepreneurs are looking for mentors, Neisler suggests that the mentor's industry background is less important than his or her personality and passion for business.
“Look for someone who has worked hard and achieved things on their own so you can follow their footsteps," she said.
Mentoring can be valuable at any stage of a business. Some entrepreneurs like to keep a mentor throughout their career, while others want a short-term relationship to solve a particular problem, Neisler said.
While entrepreneurs can find mentors through their personal networks and local networking events, these organizations can help connect mentors and entrepreneurs:
Regardless of whether you're looking for a mentor, want to become a mentor or are open to both opportunities, it's essential to establish an honest mentoring relationship.
“You learn a lot even if you're going into the conversation thinking you're helping someone else," said Gonzalez. “That's the value of mentoring."
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