Every Entrepreneur Needs a Mentor – Here’s Why
There’s no one secret to turning your startup into a success overnight. However, from Larry Page to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, many prominent CEOs have credited part of their business’ overwhelming success to the same thing: an experienced mentor.
As an entrepreneur with limited resources, is it really that important to invest in mentoring relationships? The research points to a resounding, yes! For example, a study of over 700 tech startups in New York revealed founders who were mentored by successful entrepreneurs were over three times more likely to be top performers. Another study showed that while only 22% of surveyed small businesses had mentors, 92% of these companies agreed that mentors directly impacted the growth and survival of their business.
At SFU VentureLabs, we’re proud to have a team of mentors (also referred to as Entrepreneurs-in-Residence) with extensive experience establishing growth-oriented businesses and a passion for helping other startups scale. To get insight on what makes mentoring so integral to a startup’s success, we connected with our EIRs Kirk Moir and Chuck Hamilton along with SFU VentureLabs clients Madison Guy, Founder and Chief Operating Officer of GrantMe, and Blake Adam, Founder and CEO of Medimap.
How does mentorship benefit entrepreneurs?
You’ll gain an objective, outside perspective on your business
While having passion for your business is critical to succeeding as an entrepreneur, sometimes this emotional attachment can also be a barrier to scaling your startup.
A mentor counterbalances this by looking at your business through an objective lens. With the added benefit of years of experience, they can evaluate data from a different place, suggest new ways to confront old problems, and identify issues you can’t see from inside the company.
For new entrepreneurs especially, the “you don’t know what you don’t know” area is a scary place. Often, the only way to avoid being blindsided by a problem that wasn’t even on your radar is through an outside perspective. As Chuck explains, “It takes a mentor to tell you you’re going down the wrong path, that’s just not going to work, or you just don’t know your own shortcomings – how many people do?”
Despite this, Kirk notes that CEOs often tend to think all of the answers are within the company. To avoid this common mistake, it’s critical that you get out of the office, talk to people, and pivot your business accordingly. Mentorship is a great, judgement-free place to start this process and make all the time and passion you dedicate to your startup count.
Your mentor can help you build confidence in your entrepreneurial plan
When Madison founded GrantMe two years ago, one of the biggest challenges she faced was building the confidence to not let the little things get to her.
“I used to fret over the smallest thing,” Madison describes. “Any problem feels like facing this big, uphill battle. And at some point, I think you become used to the understanding that you’ll constantly fail, and it’s really a game of how quickly you can recover.”
While it’s normal to feel lost when you first start a business, this can quickly become an issue if you find yourself stressing over every minor decision. As Kirk explains, “When people don’t have confidence, they go slow, which isn’t necessarily a good pace for a startup. Having confidence and being able to recover from issues and make mistakes is better than going slowly and methodically.”
In moments of self-doubt, a mentor is a sounding board for any important decisions, problems, or ideas you’re struggling with. Whether they make suggestions or simply re-assure you that you’re on the right track, this input can be invaluable to building the confidence you need to succeed as an entrepreneur.
Since those early, more difficult days, GrantMe has connected students with over $3 million in scholarships and experienced significant growth in virtually every aspect. Madison credits the guidance she’s received from the startup community, including her last six months at VentureLabs, as an integral part of bringing GrantMe to scale and making it the success it is today.
Mentorship expands your network and connects you to the greater entrepreneurial community
A mentoring relationship always extends beyond two people; when you get a mentor, you unlock the door to an entire network of other entrepreneurs, industry experts, and experienced professionals.
Whether you need informed input on a problem, advice for approaching specific investors, or support finding qualified candidates to build your team, your mentor can reach out to their network and connect you with someone well-suited to help you move your company in the right direction.
“I’ve been working for 20 plus years, so I can bring my entire network of 20 plus years to help out,” Chuck explains. “If I don’t have the answer, someone else in my network does, or I can connect you to someone with expertise in that area and try to make that relationship work out.”
Don’t underestimate the value of a strong network; according to Madison and Blake, the relationships you build are really what allow you to grow as a company. People want to see you succeed, so take the steps now to surround yourself with quality people and ask for help whenever you can.
A mentor gives personalized advice they’ve learned through experience
Around four years ago, Medimap decided to join VentureLabs as an early-stage company still working from home. As a founder with limited resources, Blake initially had to take on many different roles, not all of which he was an expert in.
Getting support in those uncertain areas was a huge value of mentorship for Blake. Once he connected with mentors who had gone through similar experiences and could fill in his knowledge gaps, Blake found all his responsibilities became much easier and faster to complete.
“As we’ve grown, the [VentureLabs] team has supported us every step of the way, either through mentorship or just accessing resources and connecting us with partners,” Blake explains. “The VentureLabs EIRs are all, from my experience, extremely knowledgeable and really helpful in terms of truly trying to understand your business and the challenges you have, then doing anything they can to help and advise you.”
As Blake’s story demonstrates, mentorship is an opportunity to work with someone who would otherwise be too expensive to hire, especially in the early stages of starting a business. This is also valuable when raising capital; potential investors often want to see that you have someone more senior at the table who has “been there, done that” before moving forward with your company.
When is the right time for entrepreneurs to get a mentor?
There’s no such thing as being “too early” or “too late” in your entrepreneurial journey to benefit from mentorship. As Chuck explains, “from the inception of your company to the time you exit, you should be working with various mentors at various stages who have different expertise, and leveraging them whenever possible.”
The earlier you can surround yourself with experienced mentors, the less likely you are to make costly mistakes. Sometimes, the timing of getting a mentor can be the difference between investing ten hours or 10,000 hours in the wrong way of doing things or an unprofitable business idea.
“I mentored a CEO who was very proud of the fact he had put 10,000 hours into a project. But, he had never talked to customers and he didn’t know what customers wanted because he thought he knew. I thought, how do I tell someone that they’re 10,000 hours off track? After he did go and talk to his customers, he realized they wanted something completely different than the 10,000 hours he invested in his project. You have to get out of the office and go talk to people.”– Kirk Moir, VentureLabs EIR
While mature companies may not get some of the benefits of mentorship, like not being blindsided, Kirk suggests the relationship will evolve with the company; for example, your mentor may take on a more formal advisory role in your startup, such as in the board of directors.
How should you prepare for a mentor meeting?
Like any relationship, a successful mentee-mentor pairing requires a mutual value of time and respect. As a mentee, this translates into having an open mindset and being prepared to run a focused, outcome-centric meeting with your mentor.
A week or so before your meeting, answer the following questions:
- What specific area or problem do you want to discuss?
- What are the outcomes you want to create through this meeting?
- Have you followed through on items discussed in previous meetings?
The answers to these questions will form the structure for your meeting agenda, a document you can pass on to your mentor before the meeting to ensure you are making the most of this valuable time.
Don’t wait until you’re 10,000 hours into a business idea to start looking for a mentor. Mentoring relationships can grow anywhere, from networking events to social media like Twitter and LinkedIn and formal mentorship programs offered by accelerators.
Companies join SFU VentureLabs, a science and technology accelerator in BC, to become members of a supportive, growth-oriented innovation community. All VentureLabs members have access to our full suite of services and programming, including the EIR team, whether they are “virtual” or “on-site” in the VentureLabs facilities in downtown Vancouver. If you’re a startup looking to scale, see if you’re a good fit for these services by checking out our application page today!
If you’re not yet ready to join a program, we also offer a variety of community support services, resources, and relationship-building opportunities to help companies succeed and entrepreneurs develop personally and professionally. Connect with us at some of our upcoming events and become part of our rich startup community.
Not a fit for SFU VentureLabs? Our industry partners also offer mentorship programs:
Coast Capital Savings Venture Connection is SFU’s flagship program for early-stage ventures, offering support through incubation, mentorship, office space, and access to the university’s vast entrepreneurship community.
RADIUS SFU is focused on social innovation with programs including incubation support, social innovation lab expertise, capacity building, and connecting community to pave the way for transformative ideas to create systemic change.