A good mentor is as valuable for a start-up as a good coach is for a rising sports star. They want you to succeed, are quick with advice, honest in their critiques and generous with their networks.A mentor that’s very experienced can direct the mentee in terms of things they need to think about, who they need to connect with and give them a heads up about questions they wouldn’t even think to ask. Here’s how to link up with a mentor who’s a match for you:
Look far and wide
When looking for a mentor, first go to someone you know and trust, such as a professor, local entrepreneur, industry expert or former employer. Then expand your network. Mine for contacts on LinkedIn, through alumni associations, at trade association meetings and small business development centres.
An hour with a good mentor can be more valuable – and much less expensive – than an entire business course. Mentors have real-world experience, understand your needs and want to help you avoid the pitfalls they’ve already encountered. They also have access to people and resources.
Maximise the relationship
To make the most of the mentor experience, clearly outline your expectations and schedule regular meetings with your mentor. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. And be open-minded, because a good mentor will be critical.
Protect your interests
If you don’t feel comfortable with your mentor, find a new one. Otherwise, you’ll be hesitant to share information. Regardless of your comfort level, ask your mentor to sign a non-disclosure agreement to make sure you protect any trade secrets before discussing your plans.
When you feel you’ve achieved a level of experience that will allow you to mentor someone else, connect with trade groups, small business development centres and universities. These groups may not have mentorship programmes, but they will know entrepreneurs looking for mentors. The experience will help you, too. It helps you sharpen your own skills and can help you expand your network.
Mentor programmes in South Africa
Free mentorship services
1. The Business Skills for South Africa (BSSA) Foundation is a private sector agency established by PricewaterhouseCoopers and the National Industrial Chamber with the objective to support SMEs. It operates nationally.
2. The Small Enterprise Development Agency (Seda) provides small business support through a grid of Seda-coordinated information and advice access points. It operates nationally.
3. The Business Place is a network of walk-in centres for entrepreneurs – with relevant support and information services clustered under one roof.
Professional mentorship services
4. Business Partners makes the services of experienced business people available to entrepreneurs in SMEs in South Africa.
5. Enterprise SA offers support through a secure online facility. The aim is to improve access to information, networks, expertise and business services.