If you’re starting a new business, one of the most useful skills is experience. Unfortunately, if you’re starting your own business for the first time, it’s the one skill you definitely won’t have. One way you can avoid being disadvantaged too much by your own lack of business experience is by learning from other people’s experiences.That’s where mentoring comes in.
Mentoring for small business people is becoming increasingly popular in the UK. According to figures from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ 2012 Annual Small Business Survey, 26% of small businesses run by people who had the support of a mentor were growing, compared to just 11% of those run without a mentor.In early November 2013, Business Secretary, Vince Cable launched a new £1milllion Sector Mentoring Challenge Fund designed ‘to encourage large employers, sector bodies and others to work together and deliver tailored mentoring support that reaches and meets the needs of micro, small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in different business sectors’ – https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/254985/bis-13-1263-sector-mentoring-challenge-fund-prospectus.pdf
In a recent article for The Guardian’s Social Enterprise Network – http://www.theguardian.com/social-enterprise-network/2013/oct/30/mentors-social-entrepreneurs -, social entrepreneur Liam Black, the former chief executive (CEO) of The Fifteen restaurant chain and Furniture Resource Centre (FRC), wrote about how he benefitted from mentoring support.
Black describes the support he received from mentors on his board when he first became CEO at FRC: “Graham had recently retired from a glittering career in the car industry where he had operated at the highest levels, finishing his time as the boss of Rolls Royce and Bentley. He had more business knowledge and commercial acumen in his little finger then I had in my whole body and yet he was able to deploy it and help me learn without condescension or undermining me in my first CEO role.”
Having benefitted from mentoring himself, Black became keen to pass on his own experience to the next generation of business leaders: “One of the joys of my life is mentoring and championing up-and-coming entrepreneurs. Sometimes it is about answering their questions about business basics. Sometimes they have specific requests for introductions or resources. Sometimes they just want to be listened to about their fears and anxieties.”
Tree Shepherd’s ‘Start your own Enterprise’ course provides unemployed people living in Lambeth with practical training to enable them to start their own businesses. Having completed the course, each student is given the opportunity to sign up with a mentor. Tree Shepherd matches students with mentees based on the kind of support that students need to take their businesses forward.
Volunteers currently signed up as Tree Shepherd mentors include people with experience in working for large and small businesses in the private sector, local government and consultancy. Not all, but most of these mentors are local residents who see mentoring people with new businesses as a way of supporting their local community.
Tree Shepherd mentor, Alan Flack, a Lambeth resident and marketing specialist with over 30 years experience working at IBM, explains: “I was looking around for something where I could give back. I just saw Tree Shepherd asking for volunteers in one of the free sheets that comes through the door and I thought I can probably help there.”
Flack is currently working with two students who identified marketing as a key area where they needed help. He describes a mentoring session with one of the students: “They needed marketing help so we started some discussions around what marketing help they need, who their audience is and what their value proposition is: really getting them to think about how to make their product or services as relevant as possible to their target market – and understanding what their market wants.”
Rather than setting tasks or providing answers, the mentoring process is about pointing students in the right direction to find things out for themselves. As Flack says: “It’s more about giving them some pointers of things they might want to look at: if people keep coming back and asking questions and I can see them moving forward than I guess I’ll consider I’ve added some value.”
Tree Shepherd student, Cordwell Thomas, who’s starting a business producing pepper sauce, is already benefitting from working with his mentor, Nicola. He explains: “Primarily, she’s supporting me with marketing and branding.”
He believes the relationship works well partly because: “We seem to share a lot of history. We live in the same area so we understand the area very well” but also because his mentor likes his product: “she’s got the motivation this business needs and she likes the pepper sauce.”
Fellow student, Jack Valentine, is finding his mentor, Mat, is challenging him to define what his business does: “[He says] you’ve got loads of good ideas [but] you just need to get one identity. It annoyed me at first and I told him, it really got me. The next day when I woke up, it was like, ‘yep, that’s true’.”
Overall, it’s been a positive experience so far, Valentine adds: “It’s the first time I’ve ever had a mentor. I’m only just starting to understand what they’re really about. I know it’s someone who I can turn to when I need help or advice. If I’ve hit a dead end, I can go and talk to him about it and he will probably put a spotlight on by asking ‘have you thought about this side of it?’ ”
Local business mentoring schemes like the one run by Tree Shepherd equip new businesses with the experience and “nous” that would otherwise take years of hard knocks to accumulate. They present fresh challenges to the mentors and both parties learn from each other. As Valentine says “having a mentor opens your eyes to what you can do and helps you get there quicker”At the Tree Shepherd 2013 end-of-year mentor review, new mentors were introduced to the programme. Existing mentors shared anecdotes and aided each other with advice on how to resolve certain problems. Expertise was shared and the idea of ‘mentoring beds’ was formed, i.e. groups of mentors meeting with a mentee simply to bounce ideas around and provide structured support. Instead of a fearful experience such as a ‘dragons’ den’, this would more likely result in a positive group experience – particularly useful for entrepreneurs who are at early gestation stage.
The Tree Shepherd team are long-term beneficiaries of mentoring themselves and agree that mentoring has a very powerful effect.
If you have business or management experience, please get involved. Call Lydia Gardner at Tree Shepherd on 020 3697 1540 or e-mail on firstname.lastname@example.org