How mentors helped Martyn Dawes build £23m Coffee Nation in 10 years

Why is it some entrepreneurs find it so hard to ask for help? Entrepreneur Martyn Dawes shares how mentors played an integral part in his success

The idea of a coach or mentor may seem at odds with what it is supposed to mean to start your own business. There has to be a sense of unreasonableness to start up in the first place and as Mark Twain once said “with confidence and ignorance success is sure to follow”.

However, we only have to look at the survival rate of new businesses to see that entrepreneurs need all the help they can get. In the year I got off the ground a quarter of a million businesses were started in the UK but by the time we sold Coffee Nation a decade later only a third of those start-ups had survived. And only one in 10 of the survivors had achieved high growth in more than one year in the preceding decade.

Of course, like most founders when I started Coffee Nation I had no awareness of quite what I was letting myself in for. I already had a successful consulting firm under my belt employing 10 people so believed I had some idea of what I was doing. This illusion was soon to be shattered!

Perhaps my consulting background did make me think that the more help I could get in the early days the greater my chances of success? Whatever the catalyst, I certainly reached out for help from an early stage.

Many people helped me – at various stages of the journey and all made a huge difference. I will touch briefly on three of them and then offer some thoughts on seeking help with your business.

1. The accountant

The first person I asked to help me was a partner of the accounting firm Baker Tilly (her name is Christine). They were a big London firm and I could not be sure they would help a start-up like myself.

However, they liked my idea and perhaps most importantly my ambition and so agreed to help me with business planning and introductions to investors. I couldn’t pay much of course but agreed they would be paid later once funds were raised. Simply having them on board was a huge confidence boost.

Many challenges followed and a year or so later I was almost out of ideas. I persevered, my ‘eureka’ moment did appear and Coffee Nation morphed in to fresh-ground takeaway coffee stations. Sales rocketed but I still had just four of these almost homemade kiosks and was desperately short of cash.

2. The turnaround specialist

What next? I had previously met a company turnaround specialist (Tony) at a networking event and we met up again. He knew immediately what was needed – now was the time to write a short funding document setting out the results of my latest trials.

He worked with me not just to create the document but to find the right audience to present it to. Within three months I had secured a six-figure seed round, the cash crisis averted and I was on my way to the next stage.

3. The chairman

Shortly after this I met the man who became Chairman of Coffee Nation. The timing of this meeting was of utmost importance. Had I met Derek six months earlier he would undoubtedly have passed me by as I did not have the proof of concept – and hence confidence – to attract someone of his experience.

He had previously chaired two high growth companies. I sought the council of Tony and Christine who both said he sounded like just what I needed. He was highly experienced in stewarding a young start-up all the way through fundraising, formation of a high calibre board and on to profitability and high growth. I learnt much from him and we worked well together for almost a decade.

Without the help of these great people my story could have turned out so differently. I have no hesitation whatsoever in saying that without some of this help Coffee Nation may never have scaled up and achieved the eventual success it enjoyed. Here’s a few thoughts on finding a great mentor or friend to help you:

  • Think big from the start. If you don’t you won’t attract the great people who will want to help you. Successful people want to be associated with more success.
  • Follow your instincts – it’s your business – listen to advice but be careful to filter it – you must make the decisions and stand by them.
  • Choose your mentors carefully – sadly many have little real experience and will be more of a danger to you. I remember meeting ‘Business Link’ in the mid 90s and certainly forming this impression.
  • Timing – the more proof you have you are on to a winning idea the easier it will be to attract a great mentor.
  • Don’t expect them to have all the answers but a great mentor can help you find them for yourself.
  • Reward them well and be prepared to offer them equity or similar that will incentivise them to help you over the long term to build your company and its value. Tony and Derek both did well and Baker Tilly got its fees.
  • There are now a number of entrepreneur groups, business angel and seed capital networks – all are good places to look for great advisers and mentors.

There is no shame in asking for help. Most entrepreneurs don’t know what they don’t know. Experience is having faced the same or similar situations before and that’s something no entrepreneur can have too much of on their team.

Martyn Dawes is the author of Wake Up and Sell the Coffee: The story of Coffee Nation and how to start, build and sell a high-growth (January 2014, Harriman House)

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