I am often asked if I mentor in business. Often after speeches, by Linked In, requests from friends, indeed even in chance meetings and then sometimes when stalked. (In a nice way.) I’m afraid these days my answer is most often an immediate no. As a general rule, I don’t have a lot of free time so the time I do have, I spend giving enterprise talks on business in the hope that I can reach more people that way. I do feel enormously honoured to be asked and sometimes have been delighted to be considered for a board position knowing full well that I loathe the idea of contributing in a non-executive role when I have enough energy to still run my own show.
That said, I do try to both act as trusted advisor, and sometimes telephone the really persistent people when I see what I feel are key enterprise qualities for success. Over the past years of experience where I have gone from freely giving my time, to being a paid non-executive, to working as a trusted advisor both paid and unpaid, I have much changed my approach. Today I always question the time I allocate to all parts of my daily diary as I remain over stretched through my own ridiculous sometimes determination to think I can do everything. I cannot. Or more accurately I end up doing nothing well enough.
Firstly let’s deal with the difference between what a mentor is meant to do, what a coach is meant to do and how an advisor is defined.
In terms of mentoring … I can’t put my finger on just what it is that I see in a person,(that convinces me to surrender personal time or focus on my own investments,) but it’s often centred around whether I think I have anything to offer them, whether I think they will act and really value the honest experiences I share, and whether we can actually build better outcomes. I am very selective about the people I choose to mentor, more so very choosey about the people and products in which I invest. Right now I am injured from an experience where advice given in good faith, expertise requested where I bought into the shares of a business has been found overwhelming or perhaps even too difficult to understand and certainly has only partially been adopted. There is a complete disconnect between the business founder and the ability to really accelerate a growth company due to the characteristics and lack of business knowledge plus a complete mismatch on the understanding of what it takes to lead people well, build a structure, follow basic principals and frankly to get stuff done. I feel angry that I have wasted time, the most valuable of all commodities. I also have to be responsible for the tempo and pace at which I and my exceptional team are capable of working. Not all founders want the accelerated, relentless pace of growing a successful business and thus not all founders will be successful. There are inherent risks with time to market, time in market and time to execute. Getting and acting on good advice and having a mentor who keeps you focused may be the difference between profit and failure.
Ever since the early days of Pacific Direct, I have always felt that one should share only from actual real life experience and knowledge wherever possible. I was very lucky to have people patiently explain things to me and answer my questions when I first started out in business, and I feel it’s very important to “pay it forward and back” by giving what assistance I can to those just starting out on this journey.
It may sound harsh, but I find that it’s better to keep saying no to someone and see whether they can persist, and prove they have the resilience and desire to really keep pursuing with purpose. If someone shows this level of persistence and diligence I am much more likely to look twice. Where I am concerned, the first “no” is only the end of the conversation if the asker has decided to take their first “no” as the final answer. Learning not to take no for an answer is a good lesson in business.
Fundamentally some critical actions of the mentee count for a great deal. Doing and acting on everything may not be the right thing always. Certainly though hearing, acting sometimes and always in sight of the financial position of the company, these things remain critical for any leader who wishes to grow a great company.
When running a business it’s not just about having a good product and good people around you – as the person in charge of the business, you really need to be able to understand cashflow and the basics of business finance. Without this, good commercial decisions cannot be made. I am approached to invest in businesses often, and these days I am much more focused on these considerations when it comes to choosing who I want to work with and invest in. Mentorship is a good way to find out if I can possibly work with someone, and frankly whether they like my direct style.
When it comes to mentoring there are also practical elements to consider such as how convenient it will be to meet with this person regularly. I also consider the possibility of future funding dilution which could mean I would lose interest in the value of my investment. For me, I have to feel that there is enough at risk to really make me and my team work hard and bring value wherever possible. Of course, as the investment risk increases my focus is stronger. Still, I find it so enjoyable to watch a company flourish and develop in different ways, expanding to new markets and finding different channels for success. It is endlessly rewarding to see this and know that I had a part to play, no matter how large or small.
When I first began mentoring people, it was because I had sold my business and was finding my way with what to do next. I had no real plan, other that I love enterprise and fostering that entrepreneurial spirit in others. I like to invest in products and I knew I needed to keep working and learning in order to set a good example to my children and to keep my mind ticking over. I’ll never be the sort of person who could retire early and just do nothing!
When it comes to mentoring, it’s important to think selfishly beforehand, about what really gets you motivated enough on the bad days to keep going. It is not wise to agree to mentor someone in an industry or area where you have little to no interest as when the hard days hit you will be of no use if you are not motivated.
When it comes to investing in a company, this is even more important and one should think about whether you can get a double whammy of return on your time and investment by some overlap between the companies you are investing with, either with shared products or services.
In both instances it is useful to really talk to the entrepreneur in question and find out what their end game actually is – and whether it’s realistic. Get a good understanding of their lifestyle desires and commitment as many people simply do not understand the level of work required to succeed and grow a company, especially in the current market. The last thing you want is to invest in a company and agree to mentor someone who then decides all of this is far more stress and effort than they were anticipating. Likewise, if someone is setting up a business with the idea of “making it big” I do not believe they can achieve success. Motivation should come from the desire to serve, to solve a problem and to make a difference. If your only driving force is to get rich, it’s hard to get anyone else to buy into your idea – and running a business is hard going alone.
For me a major consideration is whether an idea is scalable and can be exported. Locations matter and today more than ever exporting is a vital piece of the puzzle. Having a niche and original product position that can seriously scale are things that really matter.
Mentoring and investing are not for everyone. Those who have the time and money for such things will not always want to put them into helping others. For some, once they have stepped away from a company they are done with business and wish to see out their days on a desert island sipping cocktails. Whilst I do enjoy a good holiday, I enjoy the hustle far too much; I enjoy sharing my knowledge and experience, and also learning new things from and with my fellow entrepreneurs.