I have the best gig in the world.  I get to help people move their dreams forward.  I have the opportunity to help college kids who are just starting out.  I can advise business owners who have hit a plateau, reach out and find the next big thing that will propel them to higher levels.  It is all a big rush.  I have talked previously about things that Young Entrepreneurs should know (some seasoned business owners could use these lessons as well).  I have written about why someone would use a mentor and Real Social Networking.

But until now, I haven’t written much about what makes me want to get involved with a business.  It just so happens that last week I interviewed a number of business owners who were looking for mentors. They each were smart, focused and clear about their mission.  But I asked each what they hoped to get out of a mentoring relationship and I literally got blank stares.

For me, there are 8 things that I am looking for when looking to take on a new mentoring opportunity:

  1. Is the business owner able to clearly articulate his or her business?  Does she understand her proposed business model? How does it make money?  What does winning look like?  Who is the competition?  What makes you unique and thus memorable in the marketplace?
  2. How well does the entrepreneur take to proffered alternative ideas?  In almost every first encounter (and many subsequent ones as well), I will offer up some differing opinions.  I look for reaction and thought process when the entrepreneur replies.  I am absolutely not looking for the entrepreneur to just accept my thesis. Rather, it is how they respond.  Are they argumentative?  Are they passive?  Are they confident? Can they riff off of my idea to get to a better place? Some of my biggest failures as an advisor are when the entrepreneur has all of the answers and feels the need to continue to do what they want to do without seriously considering alternative opinions.  Why invest time and effort in the mentoring relationship?
  3. Does the entrepreneur have a reasonable level of vision?  By this I mean, is the entrepreneur focused only on global strategic issues with no real plan to get anything done?  Conversely, it is almost as bad to have one who is buried in the minutiae of running the business with no thought beyond the next payroll cycle. While each entrepreneur has a preference for one or the other, it is critical that the entrepreneur develops to have both levels of vision in play at all times.
  4. Is the entrepreneur a professional? Even the youngest should have the basics down.  Business cards, website, firm handshake, thank yous, elevator pitch of the business — all are critical.  But most important, is your word your bond?  If you promise something, can I count on it?  This is where a lot of folks fall down.  In most cases, I am volunteering to help you.  The least you can do is to make promises you can keep and engage me wisely.  Part of my value to you is access to my network.  I cannot squander that resource on folks who cannot follow through.
  5. Is there a plan?  Can you build a plan for what you want to do and then live to the plan?  Can you stay away from the ADOS — Attention Deficit… Ooh Shiny — method of project planning?  There are going to be lots of shiny objects out there.  You need to stick to your plans and get stuff done.
  6. Have you got a reasonable financial plan?  You need to keep your monetary requirements as low as possible.  Looking for investment is the biggest shiny object project out there.  I have seen more business falter through the fund raising period than at any other time.  The entrepreneur is focused on making investor pitches and not running the business.  Can you wait to get financing until you have a solid revenue stream?  Your multiples and percentage of the company that you will retain will certainly be enhanced by waiting.
    Yes, I know, some companies need a significant amount of financial assistance to get a prototype up and running. Do the best job that you can of bootstrapping the company and using Friends and Family to get you to the revenue stage if at all possible.
  7. Are you enthusiastic about your venture?  You need to have energy to sell me on the concept and sell others as well.  It will come through as you describe your company.  You don’t have to be a marketing whiz to be enthusiastic.  One of the company owners I met last week was a PhD candidate in materials science.  She was as enthusiastic about the potential of her company and product as any of the other CEOs I have met recently.
  8. Lastly, do you understand my specific skills and capabilities?  Is there a fit with the company’s business plan and the CEO’s capabilities?  I am a mentor and not a miracle worker.  There are areas in which  I can help a business that come very easily to me, either because of specific experience or my particular aptitudes. If the business really needs something else, I would try to help them find the right type of mentor to solve that problem.  In many cases, the company will require several mentors, who will each work on areas of specialization.  It often helps if the mentors know each other and can collaborate, but it is not necessary.

It is a thrilling thing for me to be able to be a part of the growth of young companies.  I take the charge of mentorship seriously and hope that the CEOs and founders find value in the journey.

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