Why Do I Want a Mentor?
BY MARK W. WINGATE
The title of this piece comes from a question I hear time and time again from would-be entrepreneurs. The truth is you don’t wanta mentor, you needmentors to survive and become a successful entrepreneur. You read that right, not just one mentor — it will take many. It’s a jungle out there. How many times have you heard that? How many potential entrepreneurs has this statement run off? Well, a mentor’s help is like having a GPS and a protective force field in that jungle. And better yet, it confirms that the best things in life — mentors being one of them — are free.
Recently I broke bread with the first of my many mentors, whom I had not seen in ten years. When I first met him twenty years ago, he was a seasoned entrepreneur who had taken a few companies public, while I was trying to launch my third company. We were discussing how the company I launched all those many moons ago had become a success. He made a statement that startled me, but as I thought about it, I knew it to be true. He said, “When I sat and listened to you guys twenty years ago, I said to myself, these guys don’t know what they’re doing.” What struck me about the remark was that even though the corporation is very successful today, we still don’t know what we’re doing!
The truth is, if people had an easy formula for how to be a successful entrepreneur, everyone would be doing it. It would be instructed in institutions of higher education, or better yet, in high schools. But no a cookie cutter curriculum has been discovered in academia for developing entrepreneurs the same way that we develop, say, CPAs or attorneys. Because the number one ingredient for a successful entrepreneur — perseverance — can’t be taught.
Another of my mentors, during a discussion on the success (or lack of, at the time) of a venture, made a comment to me 17 years ago that still haunts me today. He asked me, “What are you scared of?” I found that simple question absolutely galling at the time, because I wasn’t scared. But in retrospect, it was his challenge that kept me looking and learning. Over the years, I wrote him many letters explaining how unafraid I was and why, but I never sent any of them. Writing the letters, like writing a business plan, was an exercise in identifying my strengths as well as my weaknesses. It was, and is to this day, an invaluable lesson.
Over the years, I have assumed the mantle of mentor, and advised literally hundreds on how to make their businesses successful. Some listen, some don’t. Some of the advice I have provided has proven to be spot on, while other advice has been completely worthless.
It’s been said that entrepreneurs are wired differently than non-entrepreneurs. I’m skeptical. However, one commonality that I do see in entrepreneurs that sets them apart is their perseverance. An entrepreneur without perseverance will rarely succeed.
So, where does perseverance come from? Where do you buy it? What does it cost? Perseverance comes from within. If you don’t have the passion to persevere — to endure periods of doubt, failure and possible hardship — don’t become an entrepreneur. But if you do — if you’re not afraid — then find yourself some mentors, roll up your sleeves, and get busy. Quit worrying about failure and focus on the success.
Every entrepreneur I talk to I ask the typical Entrepreneur 101 question: do you have a business plan? The answer is always the same: “no” or “not yet.” It seems that every successful entrepreneur eventually gets around to writing one, but rarely in the beginning. A business plan is important, but it pales in comparison to perseverance.
One thing you hear whenever a venture fails is, “Well, it just wasn’t a good idea.” Two entrepreneurial examples would be the pet rock and the solar shingle. The pet rock was obviously a harebrained idea, but it made millions in profits; while the solar shingle is an excellent idea, which people have tried repeatedly to make work, but no one has yet had the perseverance to see through.
Who Makes a Good Mentor?
The ideal mentor for a would-be entrepreneur is an entrepreneur who has successfully started companies. CEOs of large companies can be valuable contacts, but don’t necessarily make good mentors for entrepreneurs, for the simple reason that few CEOs have started their own companies from scratch.
Many people confuse mentors with consultants. Mentors, in general, are not in it for personal gain; they are in it to give back what they received.
Successful entrepreneurs will have numerous mentors over the span of their careers. And I think it’s an unwritten law that when you become a success, you become a mentor to keep the tradition going. I believe that mentors are the single-most important outside influence in starting and growing a successful business.
Let’s Do Lunch
Where do brain storming sessions with mentors take place?How do I make them happen? An old adage that seems to be getting lost is “the best blueprints of good ideas come off of a napkin.” Whether a cocktail or a coffee napkin, ideas happen here. Why? Good mentors are busy. If you ask if you can go by their office and visit, you will probably get a no. If you do get a yes, your mentor’s creative mind timemay be switched off if you meet in his or her office. If you are in your office, you may find yourself distracted.
Everyone has to eat, so why not make it a lunch meeting? While food is being prepared, the mind needs something to do. The stimulation of good ideas begins here. From that point, e-mail, phone conversations, vacations, brain storms, and many other forms of a mentoring relationship can begin. It just takes that first spark to make it happen.
Where Do I Find Mentors?
You already have many mentors, maybe you just haven’t realized it yet. My first mentor that I recall was a friend of my father who happened to be a successful entrepreneur. I met him when I was eighteen and he saw me as an over-energetic, over-enthusiastic young man. He asked me what I wanted out of life, and I told him I wanted to be a millionaire by the time I was twenty-five. He advised me that that was a “bad goal.” He went on to explain that money was nice to have (as we flew to Albuquerque in his private jet for lunch), but that there was never enough. Quality of life, he explained, is how riches should be measured. At the time, I thought he was crazy, that after a million dollars, there was a billion dollars. Three decades later, I can tell you that he was right. There’s always more money to be made, but life, and how you live it, becomes the most important thing in business.
I later acquired a very inspirational mentor through a friend. I had just started a small electronics manufacturing company, and a friend who was a financial consultant introduced me to the President of Texas Instruments. Yes, it was over lunch. He not only became instrumental in the success of my budding corporation, but Texas Instruments became an invaluable customer as well.
I have found mentors from my children’s friend’s parents; through civic and professional groups such as the Boy Scouts, Kiwanis, and the IEEE; as well as from customers and vendors. My parents, my wife and my children have all been good mentors — as well as sources of other mentors.
Use your resources, take an interest in what others are doing, and they will want to know what you are doing — forging the inception of mentorship. The concept of mentorship has become so entangled with me that I have mentors that I mentor. Over time, it tends to develop into a give-and-take kind of relationship.
Try to learn from everyone you come into contact with. Ask people whose small business ventures failed about their experiences and mistakes, learn from it, and use it. He or she just became a mentor. In Sam Walton’s book, his wife said that he would go into a failing competitor’s store and look around for hours. She asked him why he was studying a failure. His response was that his competitor wasn’t a failure at everything, that there had to be something he did right, or else he wouldn’t have been able to be a competitor in the first place. He was searching for what they did right, so that he could replicate it.
Probably the most valuable mentor is the one that you keep going to time and time again. We so often lose site of what made us successful to begin with. Long-term Mentors who become friends will also provide a reality check. One of my mentors once told me, “It’s not getting the customers and the success that’s hard, it’s keeping it.”
In summary, I hope that this piece will spark some ideas in you on how to recognize and find mentors. They are all around you, just open your eyes and press the flesh. Use them, and expect to give nothing in return. When you become a success, and you will if you have enough mentors, then expect to become a mentor yourself. It’s that simple. Do you have the perseverance to do it? What are you scared of? Are you an entrepreneur, or just someone with an idea? Ideas are a dime a dozen, but successful entrepreneurs are an endangered species. If you are an entrepreneur, go for it. Some day in the future, you will be glad you did.