Words from the wise: The value of a good mentor

If you want to succeed, find the best mentor you can – and pay attention

Jerome Touze came up with his business idea, Wayn.com, while on holiday in San Francisco.

He envisaged a social network for travellers and holidaymakers which could help them meet up, share experiences and increase the fun they had while abroad.

As a business idea it was very scalable, had international appeal and was original. There was also potential for a mixture of revenue streams from advertising and subscriptions.

However, Touze, by his own admission, was no technology expert and his business experience was limited. But, like many true entrepreneurs, he decided to go for it anyway and search for others who had the necessary expertise to fill in the gaps.

“I am not a technology person and I am only 28, which means that I’m relatively inexperienced,” says Touze candidly. “All I had was an idea. I knew nothing about the internet, so I had to learn everything.”

Today, five years on, Wayn.com is a successful social network with 13.5 million users. The key is that Touze and his business partner, Peter Ward, found experienced entrepreneurs who were able to not only invest money, but also provide crucial advice and guidance.

Business mentoring, while well established in the US, is now gaining ground rapidly in the UK. The idea of going it alone might sound daring and exciting, but more often than not, very successful entrepreneurs have got experienced and knowledgeable people on their boards as non-executives or as investors. They can be the calm voice of reason that you need to hear at 4am when you lie awake in a cold sweat, or who take on board your ideas, understand your concept and provide direction and focus.

Touze aimed to bring the best help into his business that he could find. His first investor was Steve Pankhurst, founder of Friends Reunited, one of the great successes of the first wave of the internet. This got the ball rolling and, using a subscription model in a similar vein to Friends Reunited, Wayn.com became profitable from the off.

But Touze was aiming high and needed more investment and help. Fortunately, Ward met Brent Hoberman at a conference where the Lastminute.com founder was speaking. Coincidentally, Hoberman told the audience that he was still very interested in the travel industry, and that social networks fascinated him. Hoberman was added to Wayn.com’s list as a potential board member and the campaign to bring him on side was underway.

Finding mentors

Finding the right business mentor is not easy, and you must see it as a selling job where you and your business are under the spotlight.

The ambitious should aim high, and the results of this are demonstrable in the case of Wayn.com and others, such as Christina Domecq’s SpinVox (see box on page 51). You have to put the time in and help your mentor targets understand why you are worth backing.

Deborah Meaden, of Dragons’ Den fame, invests in and advises many businesses. She says that she really tries to get under the skin of those seeking help.

“I will put an afternoon aside and ask them to come and present their business to me. I generally don’t give them too much instruction on how this is to be done,” she reveals. “This gives me an idea about how aware they are of what their business involves, how well they understand it and how self-aware they are. It is the details they’ve chosen to give me and what they have left out that tells me about them.” 

Your prospective mentor will want business information, such as accounts, marketing, statistics and your personal history before coming to an informed view. But chemistry is important, too. David Soskin and Hugo Burge, of Cheapflights, invest in Web 2.0 companies via the Howzat Fund. They put money into Wayn.com with Hoberman, and Soskin says that the personal characteristics of the founders were important.

“We were impressed by their passion and commitment, and the fact that we could understand what they wanted to do. We also liked the fact that they had investment from Steve Pankhurst,” he explains.

However, Howzat wanted Wayn.com to boost its board with high-calibre personnel. Touze and Ward were pursuing Hoberman, but he was proving hard to get and turned them down at one point. Eventually, he succumbed to their persuasion. “The guys were very persistent and ambitious, and I thought they deserved a shot,” says Hoberman. “They were tenacious and I admired that.”

The right chemistry

Your relationship with your board members is important, as is their relationship with each other. You need to be able to work together as a team, and shared values, aims and ambitions are key. Trust and respect are prerequisites to success, and this can make meetings both enjoyable and productive.

Ajaz Ahmed, founder of the multi-national advertising business AKQA, says he, his chief executive officer Tom Bedecarré and others meet up regularly for ‘Kitchen Cabinets’ which are crucial. “Every now and then we have these sessions where Tom and I catch-up at our houses over lots of cups of tea,” he says. “If you have good relationships with the team you work with day-to-day, then you can discuss ideas and listen to advice and opinions.”

You must be selective when picking your board and, as Soskin argues, it’s best to keep the team tight. “You don’t want a large board, particularly if the company is quite small,” he says. “The problem with early stage businesses is they get funding from many places and entrepreneurs give out board seats to investors.”

The right board members are crucial to your success. To find that you have someone with influence on your board who you don’t want is a headache you can do without. “It is easy to give people seats, but difficult to get rid of them,” Soskin advises.

Advisers, not doers

“People often use mentors in the wrong way. They tend to use them when there’s a crisis or when they want specific questions answered,” says Meaden. “But a mentor is someone who can work with you in the long-term and help you to grow your business.”

Typically your mentors aren’t going to be too hands-on, but should offer you guidance and provide direction. They are often good listeners, but you need to be taking on board what they say for the relationship to work.

Martin Higginson, founder of Netplay TV and many other businesses, says that mentors can help business owners to keep their perspective and focus.

“The chairman can often be the father confessor figure,” he says. “So often we can’t see the wood for the trees, it is so easy to become blind to the situation.”

Meaden says that, as an investor, she doesn’t want to be too involved in the business, but sees her role as providing guidance and then letting the entrepreneur get on with it.

“If I find that the person is becoming too reliant on me, I will pull back,” she says. “I see my role is to help them in the early days, but then to step out of it. There’s a danger in mentoring that you can become a crutch and you mustn’t do that.”

Touze gives Hoberman credit for changing his site’s business model away from its subscription service to a free access site where the main revenue was advertising. It helped to boost the site from 1.5 million users to more than 13.5 million. But Hoberman says he resists the temptation to get too hands on.

“I am not one of the founders of the company. This is their life and I am trying to help them, but it’s their baby,” he says.

Mentors help you to define your vision and to put it in place. They are good people to consult to help you regain your focus, but they are only useful if you are able to put into practice the advice they give you. One reason entrepreneurs don’t properly implement strategies is because they get too caught up in the day-to-day running of things. The old adage of ‘working on the business not in it’ applies here, and it is a view backed by many successful entrepreneurs. It is essential that you and your co-founders spend time engaging in some ‘blue sky’ thinking or brainstorming. Your mentor can play a part in this process, although they don’t have to be there throughout.

It’s easy to convince yourself that an idea is good and to ignore evidence to the contrary. Soskin recalls how Sir Colin Corness, chief executive of Redland, used to “probe and probe again” when he worked for him. “He was a highly intelligent man, who asked very difficult questions,” recalls Soskin. “He didn’t take anything on trust. He really grilled you in the nicest possible way. You had to be very well prepared for conversations with him and that was very valuable.”

Therefore, it is better to speak to those who will probe and test your plans before execution not afterwards. “They can challenge your thinking; they will open your mind to all sorts of things,” agrees Touze. 

Aiming high

If you want to conquer the planet, you need a world-beating team. Aim high and you might be surprised at who you can attract if your idea is really good and you work hard to convince people.

Mentors are there to advise and guide you, not to run the business. But, equally, you must take on board what they have to say or there is little point in having them. If you don’t want to listen to them, then you’ve got the wrong ones.

Me and my mentor: David Soskin

Who has mentored you? Sir Colin Corness, chief executive of Redland Group, whom I worked for during the 1980s.

What did he teach you? I think I learnt about cross-border business from Colin. If there’s anything I have learnt, it’s not to get too dependent on the UK as rainy days will come.

As a mentor yourself, what’s your advice? Hire for where you want to go, not for what you want to do today.

Me and my mentor: Deborah Meaden

Who has mentored you? I had a really good non-executive called Sir James Henry Watt. He was an incredibly practical and knowledgeable man.

As a mentor yourself, what’s your advice? Know what matters in your business and focus on that. Write it down on a piece of paper if necessary, and when you get lost in the fog bring it out and remind yourself what you are doing.

Provide an example of a mistake you’ve made, so others can avoid it In my early days, I would self-prove things. Now I am the opposite and I say: “Forget what you would like to do, take a long hard look at things, consider carefully and then go for it.”  

Case study: Global vision

Company: SpinVox

Founders: Christina Domecq and Daniel Doulton

Mentors: Charles Dunstone, Peter Wood, Martin Hughes

Christina Domecq came up with her business idea, a voice-to-screen conversion for mobile phones, following a business meeting when she found herself inundated with voicemails. Her business partner, Daniel Doulton, undertook some research to find out about the competition, and it became clear there was a big gap in the market. They filed for patents and SpinVox was born.

However, the plan, which aims at nothing less than global domination, was hugely ambitious, requiring brilliant technical staff, product testing, expansive marketing and agreements with major mobile carriers, not to mention lots of funding.

“Make sure you raise lots of money, so you can hire the best people, not just the ones you can afford,” Domecq advises, as she herself has been advised. Her mentors include Charles Dunstone, chief executive of Carphone Warehouse, insurance magnate Peter Wood, the founder of Direct Line, and Martin Hughes of the Toscafund. These men could offer her money, vast business experience and key contacts. Domecq’s concept was innovative, but had many potential applications, so they advised her to “focus on one thing and do it really well”.

Through Carphone Warehouse, SpinVox had a gateway to UK consumers and 170,000 subscribed via its website. This proved key to attracting the major global carriers who would take her business to the big time.

“We chose to go to the consumer first and prove the concept,” says Domecq. As a result, 12 major global mobile phone carriers are selling SpinVox as part of their packages, pushing users above 10 million.

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