How to ask someone to be your business mentor

By Matthew Stibbe Matthew Stibbe
Matthew Stibbe and Totoro at Studio Ghibli Museum

The Beermat Entrepreneur reckons every startup entrepreneur should have a mentor. So do many TV programs about business, from Dragon’s Den to the Apprentice. The Prince’s Trust, a British charity that helps young people start businesses, will only fund a business that works with one of their mentors.

I ran my own computer games company for more than a decade. (Sounds fun, right? Check out these tips for how to get the job you want.) Since I sold it in 2000, I have been approached by eight or nine people to be their mentor. I helped one company for three years. I was also a mentor to two Prince’s Trust businesses. This post is based on the experience of being asked, rather than the experience of asking.

Asking someone to be your mentor

  • Remember that you are asking a favour. Generally, people want two to four days a month of my time. Unpaid. This time isn’t free for me. Usually, it means giving up my free time to do it. One or two people seem to expect 24/7 phone and email support plus an instant, passionate commitment to their company. Uh oh!
  • Have a business plan. Even if it is one or two sides of paper. I need to know that you have spent more than five minutes thinking about your business. I’m not a VC – it doesn’t have to be perfect or complete. I can help with that but it’s not a mentor’s job to come up with a business plan for you.
  • Have a plausible business. It’s good if you can show some kind of product, website, demand or sales. At the very least, be serious about starting your business. Several people have come to me while still in full-time employment and virtually asked me to start their business for them before they would quit. This isn’t a mentor’s role.
  • Show me a reason to do it. It doesn’t have to be money. In fact, I never received a penny from the three businesses I did mentor. But the product has to be interesting, the journey promising, perhaps there’s a possibility of equity or fees down the line. In one case, I mentored a personal training company and we time swapped: training for mentoring. If I’d charged them a full commercial rate for my time, it would have been unfair but swapping one hour of my time for one hour of their time seemed fair without being expensive.
  • Make contact by introduction or recommendation, if possible. An email out of the blue is less likely to get a hearing than an introduction from a mutual friend.
  • Do your homework on your would-be mentor. It’s more like a seduction than a recruitment exercise. Find out what your person is interested in, what is likely to motivate them, who they know and what they might be able to contribute. Use that information when you’re making your approach.
  • Do ask someone who has something to offer. Uncle Charlie may be a good chap, but you need a mentor who has been through the process of starting a business themselves.

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Mistakes to avoid

  • Don’t be late for meetings. More than any other business relationship, the mentor relationship depends on trust and respect. Being flaky, especially when you are courting a mentor, is a recipe for disaster.
  • Don’t expect your mentor to run your business. A mentor isn’t a manager or a director. If you want a manager, hire one. If you need a lawyer or an accountant, hire them.
  • Don’t take them too seriously. It’s your business. You have to make the decisions and, anyway, even I have been known to make the occasional mistake.
  • Don’t ignore their advice. I quit mentoring one firm because they simply would not listen to the key point I was making: the reason that they were not growing or making a profit was because they did no marketing at all. No customers, no revenues. The entrepreneur was happy building a better mousetrap but figured that people would find him by telepathy. The main reason to have a mentor is to see a bigger picture. Ignore it at your peril.
  • Don’t confuse investors with mentors. I have spoken to several successful businessmen who have taken on angel investment because they really liked the person with the money and thought they would be good mentors. In two cases, the relationship soured quickly and the investor became a thorn in the flesh and, in both cases, ended up driving the original entrepreneur out of the business.
  • Always ask before using their name. Another mentoree added my name to all his websites and correspondence (without asking), naming me as a non-executive director of the company (I wasn’t). Not good.

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