Cisco UK & Ireland Blog

Start-up Hub Problem Page: Finding a mentor that can help your business grow

November 9, 2016

Our problem pages have covered an array of topics over the past eleven or so months, all offering advice and solutions to some of the most common issues faced by start-ups.

This month’s Problem Page tackles the topic of business mentoring. Cisco mentors offer start-ups another valuable source of industry knowledge, business acumen and expertise.

Katherine Hannah runs the mentoring programme at IDEALondon and caught up with some of the centre’s start-ups to get their views on the subject.

In my role at IDEALondon I see start-ups of all shapes and sizes, and at different stages in their development as businesses, passing in and out.


All of these companies and their founders will face challenges they’ve never encountered before, many of which will come from an understandable lack of experience or specific expertise.

The good news, of course, is that there is almost always someone within your six degrees that has what you’re in need of.

What can a mentor offer me and my start-up?

But what exactly does this mean? If it’s just someone’s expertise or experience that you’re after, can a mentor be a replacement for a potential new hire?

The short answer is no, probably not.

A mentor’s job is to gain an intimate understanding of your growing business, and then identify how their own experience can be of assistance.

This could be for anything from a likeminded head to bounce creative ideas off, to day-to-day business advice or perhaps just a much-needed dose of unfettered reality.

Every start-up will have its own needs, and these will change as the company grows, but typical examples of what a mentor can offer are:

  • Business plan refinement
  • Introductions – to other specialists, potential customers or even investors
  • Support around product marketability
  • Roadmap definition
  • Clarifying progress and problems, and how to prioritise

Any entrepreneur knows that failure isn’t the end of the world. But that doesn’t mean that if someone else can experience it before you – and pass on advice to prevent you making the same mistake – that you shouldn’t take up the opportunity.

How do I know who the right person is for the job?

A mentor is the person who can provide an answer to those ‘grey area’ questions like what makes a good leader or how to shape a company’s culture.

There’s a downside to this, though, and that’s that finding a mentor that’s right for you can be difficult.

As well as having some kind of interest, expertise and experience in the same field as – or at least one relevant to – your start-up, your mentor needs to be someone you trust, respect, admire even.

Ultimately, though, it’s absolutely imperative that your mentor is someone who shares your belief in the start-up’s mission.

And where do I find them?

It’s an age-old answer, but: network!

Get out there and meet people: attend as many events as your schedule permits, stick around for a drink afterwards, strike up conversation with the speakers or question-askers who caught your ear.

When you can’t make it to events, continue the conversation online. Twitter is a great place to track down and engage with potential mentors too.

The start-ups’ perspective

Just as a mentor is someone who has been there and done it before, it’s worth hearing from start-ups who’ve benefitted from a mentorship programme.

I spoke with some of our IDEALondon residents to get their take – and experiences were overwhelmingly positive.

The best mentors, I was told, are those who genuinely believe in the company they’re helping and use this enthusiasm to help shape a start-up’s story.

But that doesn’t mean that a bit of tough love doesn’t go a long way: “the best mentors are often the ones who upset you the most,” one start-up told me.


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