What to look for in a small business mentor

Small Business Guides

6 min read

Whether you’re starting your first small business or you’re a serial entrepreneur, you’ll probably do better with a mentor. Not because they have all the right answers. Far from it. The best mentors make a ton of mistakes – which is why they’re so valuable.

Mentors are really good failures

‘Failing fast’ is a popular notion in business. If you’re going to make a mistake – and everyone does – you might as well get it over with quickly. Learn the lessons and move on. But there’s something even better than failing fast and that’s learning from someone who has already failed. You get the gain without the pain. That’s where mentors come in.

They can seem like bulletproof captains of industry, but successful business people are just as bruised and battle-scarred as the rest of us. They’ve succeeded despite the setbacks. And even better, they’re prepared to help you avoid those same mistakes. Why wouldn’t you get one?

We talked to two successful business owners about their experience with mentors.

They agree that mentors give you:

  • knowledge you don’t have yet
  • access to valuable networks and capabilities
  • reassurance that mistakes are okay
  • a good eye for spotting business weaknesses you can’t see

Six tips for finding a small business mentor

JD has been mentored by the Shark Tank’s Daymond John, while Jo still has her first mentor from 10 years ago. Here are their top tips on choosing the right person to help you grow.

  1. Know what a mentor is and isn’t

    A good mentor will:

    • support, encourage and provide direction
    • have the expertise and skills you lack
    • share knowledge, experience and networks
    • see you as a whole person, not just a business

    A small business mentor is not a business coach – they don’t tell you what to do. They tell you about similar problems they had and show you how to find a solution.

    Jo Burston recommends choosing someone who’s already made the mistakes you’re likely to make. "You learn more from observing other people’s problems and innovating a solution, versus just hearing about success."

  2. Get started early

    It’s never too soon to look for a small business mentor. They can help you figure out if your business idea has legs. They can also assist with early choices, like what to charge customers or how to find suppliers.

    As a novice, you’re most vulnerable to mistakes in the early days. A mentor can help you avoid common pitfalls and get your business set up right.

    Shopify connected JD with mentors in the very early days of Bolder Band Headbands. Like a lot of small business people, he worried his idea was too small and too raw to bother a mentor about. But once he got over that reluctance and put himself out there, he says the rewards were great. Insights and advice flowed fast. “It was like drinking from a firehose. We were consuming all we could into our brains.”

  3. Look for someone compatible

    When picking a mentor, go for someone who’s in business themselves. An industry veteran can offer useful insights but they don’t know what it’s like to run a business. And don’t overlook the personal side of the relationship.

    Look for a person:

    • with similar values
    • who you respect and trust
    • who’s committed to watching you succeed and grow
    • who inspires you

    You have to feel comfortable with your mentor as a person because you’ll be sharing more than just numbers. Jo says a good small business mentor will help you through the emotional side of doing your own thing, too. That means they’ll see your vulnerabilities when you have bad days.

    "It takes vulnerability to say ‘this is not going the way I wanted it to go...I’m frightened about something...I’m scared about what’s going to happen’ – all those things require you to be quite vulnerable."

  4. See it as a learning opportunity 

    It’s hard to ask for help because it requires you to admit your limitations. But it’s a good first step in switching to an agile small-business mentality. That’s a mindset where you:

    • understand what you can’t do
    • invite (and genuinely listen to) criticism
    • accept that things will go wrong

    It’s all about opening yourself up to learning and growing. And that means accepting you have learning and growing still to do.

    JD explains that pride and fear of failure can inhibit your business if you let them take hold. "If I look at some of the decisions I made not to try something, it was because I was scared of failing. Now, when we try something new around here, we want to break it. When we launch something, we want to give it enough energy that it’s going to take off, or if it flops, we just move on."

  5. Value the time and energy of your mentor

    You’ve chosen your small business mentor because they represent success in your eyes. You want to get as much from them as possible, but don’t become a burden. Ask them how they’d like to organise your time together.

    You should:

    • commit to a regular meeting time (that suits your mentor)
    • jot down your discussion topics ahead of each meeting
    • follow through on the action points that come up
  6. Know when to pull the plug

    There’s no point continuing a relationship when the value has disappeared. You’ll evolve as time goes on and your needs will change. Perhaps your small business mentor will become less relevant to you. It’s natural to move on.

    But be aware that you’re only outgrowing a particular mentor, not mentorship. Find a replacement. Even serial entrepreneurs need mentors. And, of course, be sensitive about how you exit the relationship. Always remember what your mentor did for you. Be respectful and stay in touch.

Get a mentor and get moving

Choosing a small business mentor is the first step in embracing an entrepreneurial frame of mind. It signals you’re ready to learn, pivot, adapt and evolve. But don’t feel you have to take the first mentor that comes along. It’s important to connect with them on a personal level. You’ll get much more out of your mentor if you can share the full experience of running a business – from the numbers right through to the emotions.