Cisco UK & Ireland Blog

Start-up Hub: Why having a mentor is crucial to start-up success

July 5, 2016

EmilyIt can sometimes feel like a lonely old world out there when you’re striking out and setting up your own business.

Being able to surround yourself with like-minded individuals can provide some much needed succour (this is one of the benefits of co-working spaces). Sometimes a bit of extra help is needed though, and a few wise words from an experienced head can do

In her latest column for the Start-up Hub, Tech City News editor Emily Spaven takes a look at the important role that mentors can play for start-ups.

Mark Zuckerberg had Steve Jobs; Bill Gates had PC inventor Ed Roberts – behind many a successful tech entrepreneur stands a mighty mentor. But what exactly can mentors do to help and what’s in it for them?

Why get a mentor?

Mentors usually have a wealth of experience under their belts, often having been at the helm of successful businesses themselves. This means they’ve been through the motions, experienced the highs and the lows and have plenty of informed advice to share with entrepreneurs.

Siddharth Bannerjee, Nesta“Simply put, good mentors help plug gaps in start-ups’ knowledge and are hence invaluable,” said Siddharth Bannerjee, researcher, digital start-ups at Nesta.

He went on to explain the “plethora” of benefits for start-up founders who find the right mentor: “[These include:] unbiased guidance on day-to-day business matters, a trusted person to bounce ideas off, an experienced source of strategic support (especially when it comes to scaling up) and help prioritising workload.”

Nesta’s analysis of mentoring in the creative sector found mentees typically rate the usefulness of advice given by mentors above advice from non–executive directors and lawyers.

Mentors are also likely to have a strong list of contacts and can help put you in touch with the people required to give you further expert advice on a specific topic or to help overcome problems your start-up faces.

How can you find the right mentor?

Finding any mentor can be tough, but finding the right one is even tougher. It’s a good idea to have a think about what exactly you’re looking for – is it advice on how to best market your product? Or how to attract the best talent? Or how to structure your business or team? The answer to this should help guide you to someone suitable.

There are formal ways of going about finding a mentor, such as applying to an accelerator or incubator program. Do your research and see which of these programmes seem like they would be most beneficial to your company and would put you in touch with people you’d be interested to learn from.

Alternatively, Bannerjee advises searching within your personal and professional networks to see if there’s someone who already fits what you’re looking for. If not, attend networking meetups or other tech sector events, browse LinkedIn profiles of potential mentors, or post in pertinent Facebook groups.

“The key is to find a good match and – much like dating – it might take a few attempts to find the right one,” he Simon Calver, BGF Venturesadded.

Simon Calver, partner at BGF Ventures, said a mentor doesn’t need to be an expert in what you do, although that can help, but they should be somebody whose judgement you respect.

“Remember, it is always easier to learn from somebody else’s mistakes rather than your own,” added the investor, who is also the former CEO of LOVEFiLM.

As for finding mentors, Calver agreed there are many ways in which you could track down the right person for your company.

“You will find mentors in many different areas,” he explained, “I mentored Richard Moross, the founder of Moo, for many years before taking over as Chair – he just reached out and asked me directly.”

What’s in it for the mentors?

While the benefits for the start-up mentees appear plentiful, what about the mentors – what do they get out of forming such a relationship, which is sure to take up a fair bit of their precious time?

“For the mentor, the experience is often seen as a fulfilling and rewarding way of giving back to the business community, while also expanding their own networks and skill-set,” said Bannerjee.

MentorshipHowever, he added that entrepreneurs should “beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing” and suss out early the motivations of their mentor.

“If, from the get go, they are seeking equity or a fee to mentor, this may be a red flag that they are interested in leveraging the relationship to their personal benefit,” he explained.

Calver said mentoring an early stage business can teach people to take another look at their own businesses and remind them the importance of constantly innovating and changing. He added that he certainly got a lot out of his mentoring relationship with Moo founder Moross.

He also agreed with Bannerjee, stating entrepreneurs should keep their wits about them and be wary of those who are just looking for another job.

“Their role is to help you, not get involved in running the business. Also, if their advice stops helping don’t be afraid to move on and change the mentor.
“It has to be a win-win relationship,” he concluded.

Emily Spaven is editor at Tech City News, which covers developments in the UK’s burgeoning technology scene. She was previously managing editor at FinTech publication CoinDesk. Emily has also worked for Google and a FinTech start-up, so has first-hand experience of both ends of the tech company spectrum. Follow Emily on Twitter.

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