Thinking about a mentor for your new venture or small business? Here are a few ideas

As reflected in Vicki Donlan’s cogent and concise guest blog in December 2010, mentoring for career development has long been accepted as valuable for both employees and companies seeking to nurture talented workers at every level.

The idea of mentoring has also been applied to small business and innovation-based startups alike as a tool for making them more successful. I have been part of this trend for many years. Some of these relationships have been the result of hitting it off with an entrepreneur at a networking event, others from referrals, and still others through assignments given to me as a Scibelli Enterprise Center advisory board member. This summer, I have been a volunteer mentor for participants in the Northeast CleanTech Open and the MassChallenge. Conversely, I also have informal advisers and mentors – including my fellow bloggers Jeanne Yocum and Laurie Breitner – that I rely on to act as sounding boards.

Mentoring a small business or high-potential new venture is different from mentoring an individual’s career and capabilities development. If you are considering whether a mentor could add value to your business, here are some questions to ask:

What’s in it for you? The nature of the mentor’s objective, focus and scope of activities will differ depending on this. For example, a mentor focused on your business may be directly concerned with operating results while one focused on your growth as a business leader will target strengthening how you use those operating results in guiding your business. Sometimes a new venture will seek a mentoring relationship with a potential investor. In these cases, the focus will be on growing the business; the mentor is investing time with the potential to benefit both the venture and mentee but is likely motivated by the opportunity for his own portfolio.

What’s in it for the mentor? For a mentor-mentee relationship to endure it needs to be mutually beneficial. Some mentors are motivated by the desire to give back or to feel helpful, while others seek mentoring in return, an investment opportunity, or other reward. In all cases, it’s essential to be explicit and clear.

What qualities, skills or experiences are you seeking in a mentor? Are you looking for someone who can empathize based on experience as a business owner in your industry or a problem solver who can introduce you to new approaches? Do you respond better to input offered gently or bluntly? Perhaps you have a specific situation for which you want a mentor’s perspective, such as a generational transition in a family-owned business, integrating a recently acquired company into your own business, or significantly accelerating organic growth.

Will you compensate the mentor?
There is no right answer for this question but raise the issue early. Mentor relationships are based on mutual trust so clarity is important. Does the relationship offer benefits to the mentor that would make compensation unnecessary or inappropriate, such as peer mentoring relationships in which each participant acts as a sounding board for the other. Compensation is often prohibited in formal mentoring programs.

Will you share confidential information? If so, you will want to discuss the need to keep your information private before sharing it. A nondisclosure agreement may be useful but is not a substitute for clear communication about confidentiality. If there are any potential competitive conflicts, it is best to stick to sharing non-confidential information.

How do you find a mentor? SCORE and many other organizations offer mentoring or mentoring-like relationships. Venture competitions and accelerators such as MassChallenge enable their participants to build a mentor team. Alternatively, find one on your own. Consider colleagues and fellow business owners in your network. Potential mentors may include professional service providers, fellow business owners, or industry colleagues. Take some time to consider candidates carefully before you broach the topic. Reflect on close business friends you already meet with informally; is there someone who is already fulfilling the mentor role?

How many mentors? Multiple mentors bring different perspectives and capabilities, which can add great value. If you thrive on sorting out different points of view, consider this approach. However, if conflicting views make you uncomfortable, stick to one that meets your most pressing needs. If you do go with a group, you may meet with each mentor separately to maintain one-to-one relationships or arrange for a group gathering. Putting together a group can be tricky, so think through the compensation, confidentiality and competitive issues before you start. Will you meet in person (figure in travel time) or get together using one of the many tools like Google+ or Skype?

Finally, before you begin your search for a mentor, it’s important to recognize the limitations on mentoring. Mentors can’t make decisions for you or dig you out of a bad situation. Mentors can provide different ideas, perspective based on their own experiences, or a nonjudgmental sounding board.

Considering all of the above, can a mentor add value to your business or new venture? If so, let the search begin.

Karen Utgoff, principal of Karen Lauter Utgoff Consulting, is a market-oriented business strategist based in Amherst, MA. Learn more at

© Karen Lauter Utgoff Consulting 2012. All rights reserved.

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