by C. Daniel Baker – Black Enterprise
Originally Posted January 7, 2014
People often say that finding a mentor is essential as an entrepreneur, especially if you’re young. I am a junior at Duke University and the co-founder of Star Toilet Paper, so the experience I had prior to starting this company includes camp and caddying work. How do I even know what steps to take or how to develop a business?
While many people within the realm of entrepreneurship are willing to help, there is a big difference between someone who answers a few questions for you and someone who is genuinely interested and invested (not monetarily) in both your company and in you as a person. To me, the most important aspect of a mentor is the latter; your mentor must have a vested interest in learning more about you and what you wish to do to change the world with your new company.
But how do you go about obtaining this type of mentor, and how do you know if they are the right person?
Where: In college, I have access to both people and resources. But you don’t need to be a student to access the people and resources you need. In any major city, there will be a variety of incubators, accelerators and universities which are hotbeds for innovation and centers of knowledge. That does not mean that you need to find the entrepreneurship professor at the closest university. See what is around you and how you can make the most out of those resources. I have found that it is often the third or fourth degree of separation that leads to the best person for you.
When: ASAP! Even if you have thousands or millions of dollars in revenue, a mentor can be helpful. It is important to know that, no matter where you are in your business, there is always room for improvement and a sounding board. The advantage of having a mentor as that sounding board rather than an employee or co-founder is that they come with a consumer perspective. When you work on something 24/7, you begin to lose touch with the thoughts of those who will actually be using the product. Having someone outside the company is a great way to get back in touch with that side without having to test or survey.
How: Just ask. Having access to people and resources is helpful, but the relationships do not go as far as mentorship. Generally someone interested in mentoring will send emails saying things like, “Hey, wanted to catch up and see if there was anything I could do!” They recognize how valuable their time is to you and thus, you need to do the same. Tell them what you are looking for and why you specifically want them to mentor you. Demonstrate the value that they will have in the company. And just ask.
So…Who?: Of course, there is no easy answer to this question; it depends on personal preference and what you are looking for help with specifically. For example, in our case, there are multiple possibilities. We are looking for people with expertise in the toilet paper field, in the marketing field, and in the business development field. Chances are, just one person doesn’t embody these characteristics.
That being said, it is better to have different people with different types of expertise so that you know the question you are asking will be answered by somebody with years of knowledge and experience.
Furthermore, when you find someone you believe could make a valuable mentor, ask yourself whether you are comfortable sitting down for hours and talking with that person, both about the company and yourself. Your mentor should love what you are doing and love your passion. Make sure that they are interested in you at least as much as they love the business.