There are two kinds of entrepreneurs. There are the people who set up stamp-trading schemes in school, who drop out of university when they realize student digs don’t have garage incubators and who just know they’ll be millionaires long before the last of the teenage acne has disappeared.
Entrepreneurs like these are never employees. They’re always their own boss and always learning as they go.
And then there are the self-starters who are little more cautious. These entrepreneurs-in-waiting dream of starting their own business but decide to learn the ropes of industry first. They join a big company, take a salary, try to understand how the different departments work and prepare constantly for the day when they’ll quit and apply their lessons to their own big idea.
Both those types of entrepreneur can benefit from talking to people who have been there and done it. They can always grow their businesses faster by skipping the mistakes and working with a mentor who can answer their questions, point out the holes in the road and show them where they’re wasting time and money.
Finding a mentor though isn’t easy. It’s a relationship of trust in which one side benefits more than the other. The entrepreneur needs to feel that his mentor understands his business and cares about it almost as much as he does, while still being objective. The mentor wants to feel that his advice counts and that when the business succeeds at least part of that success will be down to him.
The best kind of mentors, of course, are people you know and trust already. Family friends are ideal, even former bosses — if you managed to maintain a good relationship with them — can work. But the Web now offers a number of places where those starting up can seek help and advice from those with more experience.
Who will you Score at Score.org?
Score.org is the most obvious place to look but it shows just how hard finding a good mentor can be.
The idea sounds perfect. Retirees with time on their hands offer their knowledge and experience to those following in their path. Entrepreneurs can submit a question for the site’s mentors to answer or they can search by industry category. Communication takes place online or the two can choose to meet and chat in person.
The problem is that a system like this works best only on the most simple levels. Mentoring relationships need to be deep. The mentor has to know not just the business but the entrepreneur too. He needs to understand the business owner’s attitude towards risk, his level of flexibility and his capacity to make changes. That sort of knowledge takes time and openness to develop.
While it’s possible to ask one of Score’s pensioners the occasional question and get intelligent, helpful answers, you won’t get the sort of long, detailed chats that characterize the best mentoring relationships. Score is too impersonal for that.
Mentoring in 140 Characters
If Score is too superficial to deliver more than the general advisory part of mentoring, then surely Twitter, a site that restricts messages to just 140 characters, would be even worse.
But actually Twitter can be a great place to find mentors because the relationships between users can quickly become very close.
It still takes a little time, and you’ll have to choose carefully, but even that becomes easier when you can see what someone is thinking throughout the day.
Start then by finding the right people to follow. Tweetscan makes the searching easier so track down people who work in your field and who tweet about what they’re working on. Don’t just follow them though. Ask them questions and comment on what they’re doing. Try to make your own tweets interesting enough for them to want to follow you and use that communication to build the bedrock of a relationship.
If you can find someone local, then you can arrange to meet and make the relationship personal but even if you can’t, the friendliness of Twitterers can make Twitter-mentoring fairly effective.
There are drawbacks however. The first is that if you’re communicating through Twitter, your messages will be public. That will limit what you’re willing to say although you can ask to make contact outside the site. More problematic is that while Twitter does contain plenty of CEOs and other successful types, it’s still primarily young and geek-oriented. Jack Welch is not known to tweet.
If you’re building a tech-oriented business, you should be fine but entrepreneurs with more traditional visions might have to look elsewhere.
Pressing the Flesh
And they might look towards conventions. While these have always been popular, today there’s a huge number of conferences and meetings designed to help entrepreneurs get the tools they need to grow and — more importantly — find the joint venture partners to help them do it.
Cozying up to someone who is already successful at one of these events is fairly straightforward — once you’ve bought their product.
At that point, the mentor has a stake in your success — you become a testimonial and proof of their ability to help people succeed.
You’ll still need to base the relationship on trust, so as Joel Comm, an Internet marketing expert and mentor himself, points out, it’s important to choose someone who really appeals to you. Take that mentor’s advice, use his materials and you should become not just another student, but someone the guru can boast about. When someone experienced genuinely hopes that you’ll be successful, you should be on the way to picking up some very valuable advice.
Ultimately though, it doesn’t really matter where you find your mentor; where they take you is always going to be much more important.