Whether you’re starting a new business or trying to grow your existing business, having a good mentor can make all the difference in an uncertain time. As part of our series on Beating Your Business Fears, Caroline Baxter gave her advice on how to choose a mentor. Here, Sage Business Expert Gurminder Marwaha explains how being mentored helped him when first starting out.
I’ve been running my own business for a few years – as businesses go, that’s a relatively short period. During that time, many people have given me advice on different aspects of starting and running a business; they still do. I’ve listened to some of the advice and ignored plenty too – and overall I’m up. I don’t say that lightly (my business is very important to me) and I have always appreciated the advice, it’s just that I’m strong-willed, driven and like to do things my way; and I believe I’ve got the majority of the listen/don’t listen decisions correct – but there’s certainly a few when I wish I had listened! That said, I’m lucky that my business is flexible enough to allow me to make the occasional mistake, learn from it and move on; and for me, that’s part of running a business – the rich experience gained from seeing things work and also finding solutions during the tougher times.
Who advises me?
Family and friends are great as sounding boards, but their views aren’t always as objective as I might need – often because they don’t want to hurt my feelings, but most of the time it’s because they’ve never been in my position of running a business. How many people in your immediate network are successful entrepreneurs? I do turn to them when I want general advice, or I look things up on the Internet (the latter taken with a large pinch of salt); but when it comes to specific business issues, I turn to my mentor.
A couple of years ago, I was awarded an UnLtd (www.unltd.org.uk) grant that allowed me to develop my product and so helped to increase sales. Through an UnLtd networking meeting where I was looking for someone to help me with a specific aspect of my business, I was put in touch with a local mentor. Why did I decide I needed a mentor? I needed to turn to someone who had much more entrepreneurial business experience than me – and successful experience to boot. We exchanged the usual emails and pleasantries before meeting in person, and it was during these initial exchanges that we set out the limits of the relationship – what my mentor would provide (and what he does provide is free) and how often I could call on him. I’m fortunate in that my mentor has a natural interest in my product, but he mentors me because he’s now retired and wants to put something back into his community.
It’s crucial to me that he’s local – I place great emphasis on meeting people face-to-face. Our relationship is professional; when we meet there’s a bit of general talk, but the time I get with my mentor is precious and we don’t waste it discussing the weather. He listens objectively and doesn’t make any decisions for me – he simply advises and offers suggestions. Making the decisions comes down to me, and me only. He’s got plenty of contacts who could help me really drive my business forward, but because we’re still exploring specific parts of my business we’re not going to open those doors until both myself and my business are ready.
My mentor has a lifetime of experience, and importantly for me, it’s in the area of my business I need assistance with most. I never wanted or needed a generalist, although I know he could help if I asked him to. He’s been there and got the t-shirt, and I’m learning from his experiences – I was barely out of nappies when he was starting to manage businesses. To use a Star Wars analogy, he’s Yoda and I’m very much a young Skywalker. It was through our initial meetings that I learned more about him – those meetings were pretty much me interviewing him to see if he was the right person for me and my business. I know people who meet a number of different mentors before they find the right one for them.
Would I recommend a mentor for your business? That’s not really for me to say. I’m still being mentored and I have found it an invaluable experience – my mentor has made me think about my business differently, and he’s also made me ask quite searching questions about what I want from my business. Along with looking at the specific areas of my business I need most assistance with, we’re currently exploring what the end-point of my business will be. That’s been a strange one for me as my business is still in its infancy, but because he’s so removed from my business he’s helping me look at things from a new perspective. And actually, it’s an important point, because the help he will provide me with depends directly on where I want my business to end up. I’ve had no downsides to having a mentor and only benefits. Regardless of what stage your business is at, there’s a mentor out there for you.
Gurminder Marwaha, Sage Business Expert
Gurminder Marwaha, a former BBC journalist, has launched a social enterprise to run a smartphone app, iBiker, which he has developed on behalf of the Department for Transport.