Owning your own business puts you in the driver’s seat, but the road to success isn’t always clear. A business mentor — someone who’s made mistakes, learned lessons and has advice — can keep you headed in the right direction.
Pamela J. Goodwin, CEO and founder of commercial real estate company Goodwin Commercial in Dallas, Texas, connected with her mentor, Jim Christon, president and owner of Christon Company Realtors, after deciding to start her own firm.
Not only did Christon become Goodwin’s mentor, he also helped get her business off the ground by becoming her partner, providing capital in return for a percentage of profits.
“Jim always knew that if you were taken care of financially, you could focus on creativity and getting deals done,” Goodwin says. “I really learned a lot from him.”
Beyond the nitty-gritty of commercial real estate, Christon taught Goodwin the value of building business relationships, a skill he mastered over roughly 60 years in business.
“He built good relationships with a lot of people,” she says. “He had a really good reputation in the city, so I knew I was in good hands.”
Christon encouraged Goodwin to write follow-up letters or send articles she thought potential business partners might be interested in. It lets them know you’re thinking of them, Goodwin says — so when it’s time to do business, they’ll be thinking of you in turn.
Why get a mentor?
In a survey of its clients, mentorship consultancy MicroMentor found that 83% of mentored businesses survived two years, compared to 74% of nonmentored businesses. The same survey also found that mentored businesses were more likely to launch and had greater revenue increases than those without a mentor.
Ultimately, you’re asking business owners who have been there and done that to share real-world best practices and help you avoid pitfalls.
“A lot of this stuff is not taught,” Goodwin says. “You have to look for someone who has the experience.”
How to find a mentor
Mentor relationships can be both formal and informal. Some local chambers of commerce have community-based mentorship programs. You can also ask trade associations for your industry about programs that connect entrepreneurs with established business owners.
SCORE, a nonprofit that partners with the U.S. Small Business Administration, is another resource. Experienced business professionals volunteer to help new entrepreneurs through a free mentorship program that’s available in person or via email, phone or video chat. The program has 300 chapters across the country and helps roughly 140,000 small-business owners each year.
Goodwin, now a mentor herself to three others, suggests a personal approach to establishing a mentoring relationship. First, make a list of people you respect in your industry; it can be local connections or big shots you follow on social media. Then, come up with a personal way to make contact.
In today’s age of digital anonymity, skip the generic email; rather, write a short letter or send a thoughtful gift, like one of your favorite books. If you’re trying to get face time with an industry notable, attend a conference where he or she is speaking and introduce yourself.
Don’t be discouraged if your first request goes unanswered, Goodwin says. “If you really want to meet someone, just keep pursuing it.”
Keys to successful mentor relationships
Be upfront with what you need: You should have an idea of what you’d like to get out of the relationship and be clear about those goals with your mentor. Whatever you do, don’t ask to “pick their brain.”
“It’s insulting to want to ‘pick your brain’ for free,” Goodwin says.
Don’t waste your mentor’s time: Being successful is a busy business, so use his or her time well. Show up to a meeting knowing what you want to discuss, and don’t expect the mentor to run the show for you.
Remember, it’s not all about you: “Give them something in return, too,” Goodwin says. “No matter where you are in your career, everyone needs help with something.” It can be as basic as research or as complex as designing a website.
“It can be whatever you feel like you can give back with your expertise,” she says. “There’s always something you can give back.”