The right mentor could be a valuable asset for your enterprise - a source of expertise, experience and support, and, above all, a fresh perspective. Rachel Miller talks to two business owners that have benefited from working with a mentor
Any business can benefit from having a mentor - from start-ups to established firms that are stuck in a rut. In fact, when you examine the advantages of using a business mentor, you start to wonder why all small firms don't have one.
The right mentor can provide fresh insight, and they bring the wealth of experience they have accumulated running businesses of their own. The best place to start looking is the Mentors Me website, which lets you search for UK mentoring organisations by your business life stage and location.
Here, two business owners tell us how using mentors has benefited them.
"Nick was able to share his experiences and give us specific tailored advice - it was not just coaching by numbers."
Company: Systemagic is a business IT support firm based in Bath, working for SMEs of all sizes. There are 14 people in the business, led by managing director James Eades.
Mentor: Nick Shaw
How they met: Introduced as part of the GrowthAccelerator scheme [now closed].
How did the mentoring come about?
James: "I heard about GrowthAccelerator through someone that runs a local technology business, and signed up to the scheme. We have been growing year on year, but we wanted to speed up our growth and maximise our potential."
How did you choose your mentor?
"We were given a choice of mentors and looked at a few CVs, but Nick's stood out because he has set up, run and sold a number of technology businesses. To have someone that has been there and done it in your sector is invaluable."
What did you want from a mentor?
"I went into the process thinking I needed help with sales and marketing. But what we found was that we needed to clarify some fundamentals - what we were selling, who we were selling to and why they should choose us.
"We spent time analysing our customer base. It highlighted how strong we were in three sectors - charities, luxury private hotels and design-oriented firms. We knew who our customers were, but we hadn't appreciated just how strongly we were performing in those particular sectors."
What were the main outcomes of the mentoring process?
"As a direct result of the mentoring, we launched a new product. Aimed at our hotel clients, it is a portable booking system that works on mobile devices, which hotel staff can use even when they are away from reception. It's not something I would ever have thought of doing before.
"We also did some competitor analysis and figured out we were under-selling ourselves. We didn't want to raise prices across the board, but we focused on the areas where we add most value and worked out what we can charge."
What have you learned personally from using a mentor?
"As a managing director, I was spending too much time in the wrong areas. Now I delegate more, and focus on areas where I can have the biggest impact on the business."
What makes a good mentor?
"Listening and understanding is important, but it's also about giving real advice. Some mentors just ask questions, and let you answer them yourself.
"I prefer Nick's approach, where he was able to share his experiences and give us specific tailored advice - it was not just coaching by numbers."
What are your business goals now after mentoring?
"Our target is to increase our turnover by 50% in three years, which should be achievable if we put everything we have learned into practice. Now we understand where the business is going, and most of all how to get there."
What did the mentoring process do for you?
"It gave us clarity about our opportunities for growth, a different mindset within the business, more focus on growth and the sense of being supported."
Manna from Devon
"We were trying to decide whether to open a bakery. The best thing about Ann was that she had previously set up and run and sold her own successful bakery as a going concern. The match couldn't have been better."
Company: Manna from Devon is an award-winning cookery school in South Devon, owned and run by Holly and David Jones.
Mentor: Ann Osmond
How they met: Via Business Mentors South West.
Why did you want a mentor?
Holly: "We were uncertain about the next stage for our business. We were trying to decide whether to open a bakery. In the end, the time wasn't right, although it is still something we are thinking about. But at the time, to help us decide, we wanted input from a mentor.
"Ann Osmond is a business mentor from HSBC. The best thing about Ann was that she had previously set up and run and sold her own successful bakery as a going concern. The match couldn't have been better."
How did the mentoring process work?
Holly: "We had a four-hour meeting followed by regular phone calls. Ann quickly got a handle on who we are and what we are all about. The focus was entirely on our business, and her expert independent scrutiny really helped us."
What was the outcome of the mentoring?
Holly: "Instead of opening the bakery, we decided to grow our cookery school business, and opened a second teaching kitchen which allowed us to double the number of people we can take.
"We also rebuilt our website, enabling customers to book online."
Had you used mentors before?
David: "We've benefited from working with a mentor who helped us with our IT. This was a paid-for arrangement, but it was incredibly valuable. I am quite IT-savvy, but working with a real expert provided fantastic insights and gave us an amazing leap forward.
"By doing some analysis with our mentor, we found that while all the activity on Facebook was good for creating a community, it was the traffic from Google that was actually leading to sales. So the process showed us where to focus our time and money."
Holly: "We also have an ongoing mentor in the form of a friend who has run several small businesses. It's not a formal arrangement, but we often consult him about the business over a glass of wine.
"We would certainly recommend mentoring to other small developing businesses."