Mentorship is a key to long-term entrepreneurial success

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 16, 2014 

A few months ago I wrote about the state of entrepreneurship in Whatcom County and focused on how important it is for the community to create a vibrant startup ecosystem for encouraging "pre-preneurs" to actually start businesses. One of the essential pieces to that energetic ecosystem is mentorship. When I invented my product eight years ago, I had no practical business experience, so I sought out mentors through business support organizations and networking groups. Ultimately I found my best mentors became other entrepreneurs who had tread the path before me, some decades down the road and others just mere steps in front of me.

I recently saw an article highlighting the results of a Gallup poll that looked at how much "social capital" (mentorship) influenced people who were thinking of starting a business. Of those surveyed (world-wide), in all age ranges and genders, those who had a mentor were more than twice as likely to plan to start their business. This suggests that in the pre-preneurship stage, having a mentor strongly influences whether or not that business actually gets started.

MEANINGFUL MENTORSHIP

The reality is, to be fully prepared to start a business, pre-preneurs and early stage startups need more than one type of mentor. That first mentor is the most critical for these pre-preneurs. Not only will they be able to offer insight into being an entrepreneur, industry trends and some business advice, they will give them the confidence they need to get started. Additional mentor and mentor relationships will come in various forms; as short-term experts in one aspect of the business, speakers at workshops, peer networking groups, business development organizations and eventually their customers.

The most meaningful mentors are the ones who pack patience in abundance, make themselves available when they are really needed and are motivated by seeing others succeed. In turn, entrepreneurs who benefit from mentors the most are the ones who find mentors when they are ready (not just in need) of mentorship, find mentors who they respect and admire, and are prepared to execute the advice of their mentor. Too often entrepreneurs who go around asking advice of every "mentor" they see, will soon be overwhelmed by information and not know or understand which advice they should act on.

MENTOR ECOSYSTEM

Mentorship is important in all stages of business. For a startup ecosystem to thrive, availability and diversity of mentors is critical because it provides confidence for not only the entrepreneurs but for the investors, bankers, partners, key hires and more. In turn mentorship acts as a stabilizing force to a fragile start - both for the business and the entrepreneur.

Mentorship has many tangible benefits; in new business started, jobs created and economic impact. However, much of the value in mentorship is the intangible benefits it brings to the ecosystem. Mentorship gives pre-preneurs that sense of confidence in their own abilities, a strong support system that also brings self-awareness and business thinking to new entrepreneurs to make their business successful. Mentors also act as a safety line. In a startup world that is built on risk, having mentors in the community means the potential for success is higher because entrepreneurs who implement their advice tend to have fewer missteps in building their business. They also use their capital more efficiently and having mentors introduce them to potential customers can mean generating revenue faster.

Whatcom County has organizations including Northwest Innovation Resource Center, SCORE, Small Business Development Center, and Technology Alliance Group for entrepreneurs to find business mentors, as well as more informal mentorship programs through networking groups and co-working spaces. However, all of these organizations and groups need more business owners to recognize the value of their experiences in helping others and who don't mind spending time paying it forward for the next guy. I am fortunate enough to spend my days mentoring new entrepreneurs and find that my past experiences as an entrepreneur, good and bad, not only make me a better business person, but are helping to build a robust start-up ecosystem where entrepreneurship can thrive.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lara Merriam-Smith is the program manager for Northwest Innovation Resource Center, a Bellingham-based organization that supports economic opportunities through entrepreneurial innovation in northwest Washington. It helps inventors looking to take products to market and connects new start-up businesses with resources to help them grow. For more information online go to nwirc.com.

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