Work with a small business mentor

A mature business woman mentors a younger woman

Running your own small business can be lonely, and it can be difficult to know what to do when faced with new challenges. Many business owners seek guidance from other experienced entrepreneurs and mentors or join groups of like-minded entrepreneurs who can offer words of wisdom and support. We look at how mentoring could benefit you and your business

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.

What is mentoring?

Put simply, mentoring means learning how to run your business more effectively by accessing the knowledge and experience of others who have been there, done that and got the T-shirt.

Usually, mentors are people who have developed their own successful enterprises and faced their own challenges.

Why do business owners need mentors?

Few people have all the skills necessary to run a business from day one. That's even more likely when people first start out in business. They might not have faced a specific challenge previously, so they won't know how to deal with it.

Also, running a business can be a lonely experience - especially when you have to make all the decisions on your own. Often, you're not in a position to share your concerns or ask for other people's advice; that's when mentoring comes into its own. There are plenty of experienced business people out there who can give you the benefit of their expertise.

Can mentoring really benefit small businesses?

The business benefits of mentoring have been recognised for a long time. Working with someone with proven business acumen who can provide you with knowledge or a second opinion when you need it will always be useful.

But these days, that's a very narrow view of what mentoring can be. Long gone are the days where you would have to meet up in person every month to set targets and review progress with a. You're just as likely to be part of an online forum or group where you can share challenges, questions and successes with other small businesses in your local area, sector or peer group. The ability to ask a question and get feedback from a trusted group of business owners, experts or coaches can help you quickly move past small stumbling blocks. This kind of support can be just as valuable as long-term input from a more formal mentor.

What services do mentors provide?

Sometimes they simply act as a sounding board - someone with whom you can share your concerns. At other times, as well as providing dependable advice, they can introduce you to important new contacts, or help you form your strategy for growth or diversification.

Is business mentoring expensive?

Some organisations, such as the Prince's Trust, provide free mentoring to start-ups, providing you qualify. Other organisations that provide mentoring include some chambers of commerce and trade associations.

You might also join relevant offline networking groups or free online groups where you can post your questions and challenges.

Other mentoring organisations might charge a small fee, but even if you do have to pay for the introduction, it can be highly worthwhile. Generally, mentors aren't in it for the cash Many are successful business people that genuinely want to give something back by helping others.

How do I get the most out of mentoring?

To get the best from a mentoring relationship, you must be honest, realise you can learn a lot from others, and be prepared to listen objectively to constructive criticism.

This is why the chemistry between the mentor and mentee has to be right, because sometimes it's hard to be told you're doing the wrong thing. The relationship must be built on trust and respect.

If you are part of an online group, it's important to contribute and answer other group members' questions in addition to asking your own questions. You should also avoid using such groups for promotional purposes.

Will I be set targets by my mentor?

Absolutely, if you are working more formally with a mentor they can help you work out what you need to do and when. The entrepreneurs who get the most out of their mentors are the ones who see them every month, when the mentor helps the mentee set goals and objectives. The investment the mentee is making for their mentor's advice should be offset by growth in their business that they would not have achieved by themselves.

Goals could include bringing in X amount of new customers before the next meeting, increasing turnover by X% over the year, or connecting with X new contacts at a networking event.

Targets should motivate you and keep your business heading in the right direction - they shouldn't be feared.

Where can I find a mentor?

There are a number of places you can start. Local and national business support organisations like the Prince's Trust often offer mentoring services. You can also search online. Websites like Mentors Me let you search for UK mentoring organisations by your business life stage and location. Your trade association or business membership group may also be able to put you in touch with business professionals that might be happy to work with you.

Mentoring success stories

Company: Systemagic, a business IT support firm based in Bath.

Mentor: Nick Shaw

How they met: Introduced as part of the GrowthAccelerator scheme [now closed].

James Eades: "I heard about GrowthAccelerator through someone that runs a local technology business, and signed up to the scheme. We were growing year on year, but we wanted to speed up our growth and maximise our potential.

"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.

"Nick and I 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.

"As a direct result of the mentoring, we launched a new product aimed at our hotel clients. It was 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."

"The mentoring gave us clarity about our opportunities for growth, a different mindset within the business, more focus on growth and the sense of being supported."

Company: Manna from Devon, an award-winning cookery school in South Devon

Mentor: Ann Osmond

How they met: Via Business Mentors South West.

Holly Jones: "We were uncertain about what the next stage for our business should be. We decided we needed expert 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.

"We had an initial meeting with Ann 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. 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.

"We would certainly recommend mentoring to other small developing businesses."

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