Episode 20: Why mentors are important


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Hosted by Jeanne-Vida Douglas and Rob Stone

For most of the paths we walk, there’s someone who has walked them before us. But where do you find your very own business Yoda – and how can they help on your quest?

In this episode, hosts Rob Stone and JV Douglas talk to Jo Burston of Rare Birds about her journey from mentee to mentor, author and entrepreneur.

“I think for me the gold nugget moment was that I saw someone who I identified with personally,” Jo says. “I can say, with hand on heart, I probably would not have been as successful without a mentor.”

Jo explains how her business success led to a wider realisation about the power of mentoring and spurred her on to form the entrepreneurial movement Inspiring Rare Birds. We find out how she’s encouraging up and coming entrepreneurs to find out exactly who it is that they want to become – and how.

Small businesss resources:

Modern mentoring: The good, the bad and the better – TEDTalk

What separates entrepreneurs who succeed from those who fail? – Blog post

Episode transcript

Hosts: Jeanne-Vida Douglas [JVD] and Rob Stone [RS]
Guest: Jo Burston [JB]

JVD: Here we are again at Xero In. Welcome to the show. Hey you, Rob, how you going?

RS: Hi JV.

JVD: Tell me, have you ever had a mentor?

RS: No, but I was about to ask you after this podcast.

JVD: Have you ever been a mentor?

RS: No, not really. I really get the reason behind it and I can see how powerful it is for people that have found really inspiring mentors.

JVD: I've seen a lot of people really benefit from it, which is why I think this conversation is really interesting today that we're going to have with Jo Burston.

RS: It's fascinating, I mean, Jo really summarises the benefits of having a mentor and more importantly, what she's doing, making it more accessible to have a mentor.

JVD: Ensuring that skills get passed on in between generations and onto people who don't necessarily have access to the sorts of skills they need to really blossom in the workplace.

RS: Yeah, and Jo's a really passionate person. She thoroughly believes in what she's doing. It's great how she's brought in an organisation like Inspiring Rare Birds to make, to spread this passion.

JVD: Absolutely, let's hear from Jo.

RS: Hi, Jo. Welcome to the show, we’re delighted to have you here as MD at Job Capital and Rare Birds. I have seen you present live and I have to say you are one of the most inspiring people I’ve come across. It’s a pleasure to have you on the show today.

JB: Thank you, it’s an absolute pleasure to be talking with you about some things that I’m really passionate about.

JVD: Passion is a great way to be in business. What would be really interesting is you could dial us back to sort of 2007 and meeting someone who effectively really changed your life.

What I’m interested in is, had you had any experience of mentoring prior to that and what really made the difference do you think about in that new relationship, in its capacity to be such a catalyst in your capacity to go on and create other businesses?

JB: I think for me the gold nugget moment was that I saw someone who I identified with personally and the fact that I wanted to walk in a journey or pathway that that person had done many times. He was already at business number seven and had exited hundreds of millions of dollars worth of companies.

I was fascinated as a business person to understand how that happened and what experience he had doing that. I guess with the thirst that I do have which is the total sense of curiosity, I started to ask questions. When I decided and thought about well this is an opportunity actually picked a new business concept, this guy is an entrepreneur he’s a serial entrepreneur, I backed myself in that process.

What he did was he identified that I did back myself, so in either entrepreneurship and mentoring in particular is not just about your business, is about you as an entire whole person. The charisma, the articulation, the story telling. You’ve got be to have a load of energy is just as important as good numbers, a sound business plan, a scalable enterprise and something that’s going to solve a major problem. I think that I kind of had all of the things and I think that as a serial entrepreneur he also identified that in me.

Years later when we had this discussion he said to me, I backed you because you backed yourself. Now what I learnt then in this journey with an entrepreneur and with a new mentor is that the expectations that I had of myself got pushed and got heightened because his expectations of me were much greater.

I saw a big sense of responsibility in someone investing in me personally. Had a big sense of responsibility around that person investing in me financially and giving me their energy and their time. Now he’s not an investor, I bought him out of the company within two and half years of growing, because we had a rapid growth period, but he certainly still my mentor. There is no financial reward whatsoever for him to currently be my mentor, 10 years later.

That’s the testament and a difference between a business coach and a mentor. A mentor looks at me as an entire person and the only reason that they are in that role in my life is for one agenda and that is to help me succeed and watch me grow.

Over the years and of course that’s become quite a life cycle because I have also provided insight and sight for him on the occasion that he’s asked for that from me, because we have a mutual respect and a deep sense of trust and confidentiality in that relationship.

I think I was particularly lucky to find that person day one of my business and I can say that with hand on heart probably would not have been as successful without a mentor given the acceleration triggers that he taught me to look for. Things like for the first two years the two things that he used to say to me every day was, what are your sales and how much cash is in the bank? What do you think I’d say to my team everyday and I know those numbers, every single day and every single business.

JVD: How much cash is in the bank and what are your sales?

JB: Yes. I know where every dollar is in every company I have and that’s because I was taught to be disciplined, to think like that at a very early stage. Knowing numbers to me was something that was drummed into my head, so that by the time I was out there doing my own deal, I could do a deal at the table, I could understand how it would affect cash flow. I could understand how it would affect scalability, I could work out overheads and margins and profitability sitting on a business meeting.

JVD: So tell us a little bit about Job Capital and Rare Birds.

JB: Job Capital was my first business and I have now started about seven in my last 10 years. It was formed because I was previously working for a business that did some salary packaging for corporate and recruitment companies and I really wanted to extend my vision into that area but didn’t really know how to.

This is in 2005, it was pre-GFC, market for rallying, equities are running and I met a serial entrepreneur. When I met this man the first thing I thought was, whatever he is I want to be that.

I think that was the moment where I sat down with him, we had a discussion around what I was doing in my career and what he was doing in his entrepreneurial journey of 30 years and I knew that was my calling.

Six weeks later I started Job Capital with him. I had a couple of hundred thousand dollars in the bank and I had my very first mentor as well.

It’s been a really crazy, fantastic ride in that 10 years, where we’ve hit some major milestones in 2012 and the business is still growing which is a wonderful thing to say about a 10 year overnight success.

Rare Birds is a bit of a different story. What happened was I was still in stage very interestingly enough in Parliament House, here in Macquarie Street, and as I looked out into the sea of technology’s faces, there wasn’t many women in the room and I kind of had to work out why that was going on. It had happened to me a few times as well, where I had won awards and I was the only woman at the table of 12 or 10 entrepreneurs.

I took a film crew then out to my old primary school, Revesby South Public School and Picnic Point High School in South West Sydney where I grew up. I filmed 30 young girls between the ages of about eight and 17. I asked them specifically who they wanted to be as they grew, not what do they want to do.

I started to talk about the ambition, I talked about business and entrepreneurship.

They really didn’t know what it was and when I explained to them what an entrepreneur really is, they thought that the business of being in business was a man’s job and that was a script in their heads. The only entrepreneurs they could name were Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg and one named Oprah Winfrey.

What I thought was this ‘aha’ moment – and I went home really upset that day – and I thought well there is a reason that there is no women sitting at the table and there is no women really because they are not aware of it and they don’t have any role models.

Subsequently we published ‘If She Can, I Can’.

It’s the story of 29 generational why women running 27 enterprises and the whole idea about Rare Birds is not just the inspiration. It’s actually giving entrepreneurs the tools that they need to grow. Because we know that the most amounts of jobs created and the most amount of special economic impact made of like companies that are growing.

To dovetail that into mentorship, I looked at my own journey and thought well I need to have capital, I need a mentor, I need peer to peer connectedness an interval to be educated by other people’s experiences as well as be reading content and I want his story telling.

I looked at my journey and thought what was missing and what was there and how do I recreate that with a mixed generation of women entrepreneurs in Australia, so that they have not just got the inspiration to grow, they have got the tools that will give them a perspiration to do it as well.

JVD: That’s an amazing story up to there Jo.

RS: Jo in your book ‘If She Can, I can’ you are obviously addressing the concern about doubt amongst young entrepreneurs and it’s interesting when you talk about how he backed you because you backed yourself. How do you bring about that change, because that inspiration as we know is one percent a success and the remainder is perspiration, but without an inspiration lot of people do even ever go.

JB: There is and I think that you can’t be what you can’t be and I believe that because that’s why little boys want to become firemen when they get older because they want to drive a big red truck and save people.

This book is not about success, it’s about growth and it’s about learning. The women in this book have not necessarily all made it. I mean the largest one I think is market cap to be at about 165 million. The smallest one is in the first year of her journey.

I haven’t focused on is the game to ultimately succeed today or tomorrow. I’ve looked at their actual journey and what we’ve done is we’ve taken it from a blank piece of paper and in the first person they‘re talking to you as you read it, telling you what happened from a blank piece of paper, to an idea, to a concept, to their first customer, to building a website, to getting social media traction, to exporting, to creating goods and services in that journey. What they are focusing on is sharing with our radar the nuts and bolts of how they did it.

RS: From those journeys that you’ve been interviewing, have you discovered that you can’t have innovation without failure?

JB: I think you can’t have innovation without learning. I think that I personally would say that I’ve never failed, but I’ve learned a hell of a lot and I have fallen on my face so many times and I’ve made an enormous numbers of mistakes.

All of those things got me to where I am today and that’s hopefully not making the same mistakes twice. I have had businesses that have not worked, but I’ve looked at the learning from that and thought what won’t I do in the next company I start, versus what will I do.

I think from that perspective, I like to think that you learn more from observing other people’s problem and innovating a solution, versus just hearing about success. Because you can’t replicate success, you can replicate somebody else’s learning and change it to fit your own business and I think that’s a mind shift, it’s a mentality shift.

The other activation for us is getting this publication into the hands of school kids. Because I think that they should be trying this stuff, they should be building little businesses whilst they’re at school. You shouldn’t need to wait till you leave school or wait till you finish university to try this because at that age, that level, the risk profile is really low. I mean you’re not going to lose the house and the business if you try it while you’re in high school.

That actually, that trying part and doing stuff and reflecting at that early age, I think that individual act whether it’s a girl or a boy to have more confidence later on when the stakes are a little bit higher.

JVD: It’s interesting the way you sort of characterise failure there, because it’s really failure ultimately and the way you told me is only when you don’t get up again. Everything else is mistakes that you can come back from.

JB: In the really altruistic stand I always say if I wake up breathing I’m going to have a great day. To me there is always a way of overcoming things and even in my worst times in business, where I have eaten so much glass and really felt like do I really want to do this, the alternative to me is not an option and that is to go and get a job. I don’t want to do that, I want to craft every day the way I want to live it.

The way to do that is through entrepreneurship and that gives me this freedom, the sense of freedom that I really want to have in life to choose how to live every day. I actually also don’t think you can really learn to make money unless you know how to lose it.

We have to try things because if we take the safe road, we end up just being a business that doesn’t innovate and we know that if we don’t innovate, we ultimately die. You’ve got to have a killer product, you’ve got to have a market that wants to buy killer product. You’ve got to be able to know how to frame the business or the structure of the business around that to make it sustainable.

You don’t get to learn that on day one, you have to go through the process of learning in action to get there. It’s very few people I could name that as business owners or entrepreneurs simply studied something and learned to do it and then did it and were successful.

You actually have to go through the process of being in action and learning to get to the result. That means in action of course they are going to get it wrong, I mean I get it wrong all the time. You get it wrong driving, you get it wrong doing everything you do in life and no kid just got up, walked and run, they had to learn how to do that as well. It’s the process of giving yourself permission and enabling yourself I think to understand that’s okay and so what if I stuff up, just get back up.

JVD: What do you see as the fundamental elements of a really great mentoring relationship, what absolutely has to be there?

JB: Trust and respect are the two things, because without that you can’t appreciate the mentor or the mentee as a whole person. We’re not just our business, we are a person, we have good days and we have not so good days and the psychology of an entrepreneur has to be really well understood as well.

The second thing is understanding or finding for me it was a person that has already walked the pathway that I’m interested in walking. That already made some of the mistakes I’m going to make in the future. The third thing is having somebody who can open doors, who can create connection and can do that willingly. Because it’s not just enough I think to stand there elevated by them, you’ve got to stand with a whole bunch of tools and a whole bunch of contacts in it as well.

The fourth thing is having for me a mentor that you can pick and pack from at any time. I’ve had one for 10 years, I’ve got another man who’s a mentor to me I’ve had for three years. I’ve got a woman I’ve had for three years. I could start just pick and pack bits of what their knowledge base is if and when I need it.

The last thing is that no one told me what to do as a mentor be like share their experiences and they tell me how they may manage it themselves, but they don’t give me advice. I think that’s the really clear distinction between a business coach and a mentor. Because a really great mentor actually just shows you how to find solutions, not what to do. For me they pointed me in the right direction to then get me enabled to find and solve the problem myself.

RS: Jo how do you see the dynamic between the mentor and mentee changing over time?

JB: It definitely changes. I think that is I’ve had other mentors where we have outgrown each other or outgrown the journey of each other. We’ve got to a point where we’re like okay well I think we can’t operate any exchange of value any further.

There’s also I mentor three young people. One of them is Sheng Sheng Weng, she is this gorgeous inventor, innovator, and entrepreneur. She’s on the cover of ‘If She Can, I Can’ and I’ve mentored her for about three years. I learn an awful lot from her because she’s a design engineer and she’s in a space that I know nothing about.

There is also another young woman I mentor and she has taught me a lot about digital and marketing and social media that I probably could’ve learned but it was accelerated through that, so that reverse mentorship process. I think it’s really valuable and particularly to have your mind open to it.

You know what I know, as the thing that I profess to know everything and if my mind is open and it’s open to learning other perspective and I think that’s the greatest value. Even though I could be a lot older, in fact some of them are 20 years older than them I still learn a lot from them if I’m willing to listen and open my mind to that.

RS: The role of vulnerability in the relationship as well, how critical do you think that is to having a fruitful mentor-mentee relationship?

JB: Well entrepreneurs are really good at telling you everything that’s great. We are always full good news and we always want to share the good news with everybody and anyone who listens to it and that’s quite visionary and it’s passionate. The vulnerability means that you actually have to share the bad news as well with someone you trust.

If my numbers aren’t going the way that I anticipate them going, a mentor is the person I would share that information with. It does take vulnerability to do that. It takes vulnerability to say, this is not going the way I want it to go. I’m frightened about something, I’m scared about what’s going to happen, I haven’t been in this situation before, I’m losing sleep at night over it.

All those things require you again to be a whole human and to be quite vulnerable, but I also believe that’s where magic happens, because those big problems in business or in your journey overcoming them is what actually gets you and makes part of the journey. The success might accelerate it, but overcoming a problem enable it to actually continue and be sustainable.

JVD: Tell me too Jo, the thing I think has been really interesting and all that you’ve highlighted through this interview is that it’s really important for the mentee to be bringing something to the table. I’m wondering do you do that.

Do you have a structure around what you prepare for each of your mentoring sessions? Do you actually explicitly so list out the things you’re going to discuss and you’re going to share or is it a more sort of I guess innate and therapeutic process you go through where things are revealed as you have a discussion that’s more open?

JB: It’s both ways and how it works best is that I respect the time and the availability of the person mentoring me and likewise the people that I mentor they do the same thing with me. If a particular mentor likes a structured approach with a set time on a certain day and I want what’s in their brain then I’ll go ahead and do it that way.

JVD: Being organised gets you access to really high quality mentors as well by the stand of things?

JB: It does, I mean at the same time when one of them has been travelling and I’ve had something burning and I’ve said to them if you’re available at 2.00 in the morning, because you’re on the other side of the world, I will be available at 2.00 in the morning.

I think it’s about the mentee showing that level of commitment and sacrifice because they’re investing in me. They’re helping me be better at what I do and the business outcomes that I have. I have got a lot of respect for that.

RS: Any suggestions for those mentors out there or would-be mentors when someone does approach them and yeah there may be mutual trust and respect there, but any suggestions when to say no?

JB: I think that you’ve got to let someone you meet ask all the questions and dig in a bit and that could feel really uncomfortable, so don’t say no that. Let that process keep moving. The things that I would say no to, when there is a lack of value alignment. If you actually just don’t share common value that I think is disastrous, because it’s really hard for them to connect and it’s really hard to align with each other as humans or business people if values aren’t shared.

It’s okay to say no when you’re either too demanding of someone’s time or they’re too demanding of yours.

RS: What you’re doing with Rare Birds, as a call to action, where would you like to see the demographics or the economics change in the entrepreneurial landscape or small business in general?

JB: Well I think that small business is the absolute bricks and mortar of economic and social impact.

I think that, we know that entrepreneurs grow faster than any other SMB. We know that they employ more people. We know that they have great economic and social impact and could change the world. Really what we’re doing is trying to nurture that and enable that and accelerate that.

I also that the SMBs it such an exciting time in business right with the innovation statement that’s just been released by the Turnbull government. We’ve now got the ability to perhaps raise equity crowd fund to raise capital. We’ve got the ability for investors to have relief fund capital gains tax to enable them to take bigger risk and more investment.

We’re now looking at VISAs to help new entrepreneurs come to Australia to help us grow our business as well. We’re looking an investment in stem so for young women to get more involved with things that help them grow their business in the future. For me it’s like it’s never been a more exciting opportunity.

You’re not it, you’re on your business and when an entrepreneur is on top of their business that’s when it really gets to fly, because they’re not dealing day to day stuff. I mean even years ago when I started Job Capital we just stuck on spreadsheets and now we do it through Xero and it’s fantastic. Because I can be anywhere in the world and I know my numbers.

RS: Thanks Jo, you make me feel like we’re training golden age for small business in innovations.

JB: We are.

RS: It’s fantastic.

JVD: It’s wonderful, yeah.

JB: I was saying to someone yesterday, if I had all the source and resources at my fingertips today... if I had that 10 years ago, I mean God knows where I would be, because it’s never been more accessible. Like you can start a business now on your laptop, you can have a website up by this afternoon. You can understand data by this afternoon, you can have your first customer by this afternoon.

RS: Well all our listeners: get out there, get started practical idea and make it happen.

JVD: Yeah exactly. That’s a great call to action, listen Jo, congratulations on your ongoing success on becoming a serial entrepreneur and on finding such effective ways to plough that success back into the community. I think you have inspired us all here on Xero In.

RS: I love it. Thanks Jo, so much.

JB: Thank you, thanks, take care.


RS: Well that was a fascinating interview with Jo. The way that she can inspire women to be entrepreneurs. The book, If She Can, I Can, but the thing that really got me was to find the right mentor, you need to actually start with a strong sense of purpose yourself to know what you want so that you're going to find that fit.

JVD: Absolutely. I think the thing that she reiterated that's an idea that I've often come across is that success really isn't about an absence of failure, it's about being able to come back from failure.

RS: That's right.

JVD: Also, the idea of a mentor being someone that doesn't just encourage you, they actually give you the skills you need. They show you what you need to know to get to that next level. Identifying the right mentor is not just someone who you're excited to be around, but someone who can complement the skills you've already gotten. That you take them further.

RS: This has come through in a few of our interviews as well. It's all about surrounding yourself with the right people.

JVD: Absolutely, absolutely. I guess that this is the marvellous thing that Jo discovered was that there are people, there a lot of people, a lot of kids that grow up in areas or in families or what have you, where they don't have anyone to inspire them to do things differently, to think differently, to become an entrepreneur. She saw a problem and she went out to solve it, which is, I guess, a challenge that we can put down to everybody.

RS: Yeah, and she's been doing it so well. If anyone hasn't heard of Rare Birds, please get on board. It is such a fantastic platform.

JVD: Absolutely and I guess if there's anyone you know who needs a little bit more inspiration, who could actually do really well if they had the right contacts, then it would be the place to go to get them there.

RS: That's right. If someone's interested in or wanting to find out what it means to be a mentor or a mentee …

JVD: Use the iTunes to share the podcast. Send it to someone who you know would benefit from finding out more about this.

RS: Fantastic. Thanks JV.

JVD: Thanks Rob.

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