5 Steps to Find Your Mentor Match

By Fergus Cleaver

Ask 10 small-business owners to name the hardest thing they’ve ever done, and you’ll get nine identical responses: “Why, starting my own business—duh.”

Striking out on your own is no easy feat. It’s even harder to do without a strong network of people who know what it’s like to live in abject fear of failure, to hustle relentlessly, to fake it till you make it. Very few self-made businesspeople are truly self-made, in the sense that they succeeded with absolutely no help from anyone.

But not every budding entrepreneur can just call up a successful peer and mainline his or her expertise. Many new business owners don’t know anyone with the right mix of hard-won experience and natural business smarts. These network-poor entrepreneurs need to hustle just to find the right people to look up to—let alone turn their insights into action.

Still, no matter what type of business you hope to found, you can surely find a local mentor with relevant experience. Ask these five questions to find your ideal mentor match.

1. Cast a Wide Net

Don’t limit your mentor search to your professional network. Turn to an authoritative source of mentorship information, such as the Small Business Administration or SCORE’s business mentor database, to find mentors who best fit your need. Think of these resources as mentors for finding your mentor.

2. Look for Someone Who Complements Your Strengths

The ideal mentor isn’t an older version of yourself. It’s a seasoned business owner whose personal strengths complement your own—maybe someone who gets bogged down in details when all you can do is focus on the big picture.

3. Find People You Identify With

Your business mentor doesn’t need to be (and probably shouldn’t be) your best friend. But he or she should be someone you’re perfectly happy sitting across a table with for hours—as long as it takes to cover the requisite ground. Loose, after-hours networking events and entrepreneur meetups are ideal places to find such people.

4. Canvass Relevant Trade Associations

Does your nascent company belong to a trade association yet? Should it? If you’re in the market for a business mentor, joining a trade association could dramatically broaden your universe of potential mentors. Most trade associations are happy to support new members by connecting them with experienced peers. You just have to know how to ask.

5. Treat Working With Your Mentor Like a Job

Not a full-time job, of course, but a job nonetheless. Your mentor is going out on a limb for you, and you need to respect that commitment. Follow these tips to get the most out of your mentor-mentee relationship:

  • Set regular meetings, perhaps every other week or every month
  • Be on time for those meetings
  • Prepare for those meetings with themes and firm agendas
  • Review progress toward discussed goals over time
  • Accept constructive criticism from your mentor
  • Know what your mentor can and cannot do—for instance, don’t expect your mentor to take any sort of day-to-day role running your business.

So, what do you look for in a business mentor?

Your Investor Pitch Should Have These 5 Qualities

By Fergus Cleaver

How’s your investor pitch coming along?

Whether you’re working on a 10-minute pitch to end all 10-minute pitches, or simply trying to identify the core values that set your nascent company apart from the myriad competitors that you’re surely competing against for funding dollars, you need your pitch to be polish-perfect.

Easier said than done. Business experts have written whole books—libraries, actually—about crafting the perfect pitch, but there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to the discipline. Just as every company is different, every investor pitch has its own look and feel.

Even if no one can tell you how to put together the perfect pitch, there are some simple hacks that can improve unruly presentations and give investors compelling reasons (hopefully many) to part with their money. To start, try these five:

1. Get Right to the Point

Newsflash: Venture capitalists and private equity types are busy. Really busy. Like, an hour behind when they walk in at 6 a.m. busy.

And their time is valuable. Really valuable. Like, thousands of dollars an hour valuable.

All this is to say, pitching is no time to play footsie. Your pitch needs to get to the point and stick to the point, no matter how abrupt it feels to do so. Ideally, you should answer the who-what-where-why-how within a minute of opening your deck.

2. Wrap Your Pitch in a Personal Story

Nothing sells like a personal story. Your business idea surely has a compelling backstory, which you can further amplify and embellish without being dishonest or even stretching the truth. (Investors do their due diligence. If your story doesn’t check out, it’s curtains.)

A compelling, personalized hook makes investors care about your pitch in a way that all the numbers and projections in the world can’t. So, even if you don’t like talking about yourself, swallow your modesty and go for the gut.

3. Know the Competition

Quick, name your top five competitors.

You’ve got ’em, even if you can’t name ’em. Before you walk into the conference room or step up on stage, you need to show that you know more about the competition than they know about you. Investors love founders who do their homework.

4. Go Visual

It’s 2016. You’d think we wouldn’t need to go over the Golden Rule of Presentations—don’t cram text. And yet, here we are.

And here it is again: Do. Not. Cram. Your. Presentation. Full. Of. Text. Your investors’ eyes will cross, their attention will wander, and your pitch will be over before you knew what hit you.

Instead, go visual: bright colors, different font sizes, eye-catching pictures, even a dash of visual humor. Anything to keep your investors’ eyes on you, where they belong.

5. Show How You’ll Make Money (And Who’ll Help You Make It)

Oh, you’re getting into business to make money? What a novel idea.

If your personal story makes your investors put down their phones and pay attention, the part about making money needs to pull them to the edge of their seats. Spare no detail in outlining your path to profitability, how much you expect to earn, and the team members responsible for drumming up new business.

Are You Choosing the Right Business Partner? How to Know (Almost) for Sure

By Fergus Cleaver

Are you asking the right questions before committing to a business partner for your new endeavor?

The first question to ask, of course, is whether you need a business partner at all. But let’s set that aside and assume that, yes, you do need to share the load. What comes next?

It’s hard to overstate the importance of choosing wisely. Your business partner is basically your work spouse. You’re going to be working closely with him or her, hopefully for years, and probably on a more-than-9-to-5 basis. You need to get along, and you need to make sure that your interests are complementary—even if you live hundreds or thousands of miles apart and rarely meet face to face.

Business experts can and have written volumes on the process of finding the right business partner. These questions can set you on the right track, but they’re no substitute for the reasoned guidance of a small-business coach with knowledge of your personal situation.

Do You Trust Them?

It doesn’t get more basic than this. You don’t have to trust your business partner with your life, mind you. Just your livelihood and nest egg.

As tempting as it is, it’s not a good idea to rely solely on your gut when evaluating a business partner. Hopefully you’ve known your potential partners long enough to make a very informed decision. If not, it’s absolutely crucial to dig into their background and look for any red flags. The judgment part comes later, when you decide whether any red flags you find are disqualifying.

Are They Willing to Work With You on a Trial Basis?

You’re not hiring this person, remember. You’re entering into an equal partnership with them, one that will hopefully last for many years. In that kind of relationship, parting ways isn’t as simple as saying, “It’s not working out.”

More and more business partnerships are starting with trial runs—essentially, incubator phases wherein the partners work together without formally committing to a financial and legal partnership. If things go well, great—sign the dotted line. If not, no harm, no foul; go your separate ways and move on to the next adventure.

Do Your Strengths Complement One Another?

Great business partnerships are built on complementary strengths. You might be a great visionary and inspiring leader, but without a savvy numbers person who’s great at day-to-day management, you’re likely to struggle. Think of the ideal partner as a half-sibling, not an identical (or even fraternal) twin.

Do You See Eye to Eye on Your Long-Term Plans and Prospects?

Put another way: Do you and your partner want to be in roughly the same place five years down the road? Before formalizing anything, have a long chat with your prospective partner about your respective visions for the endeavor. If any big-picture disagreements arise, it’s probably better to cut your losses, as fundamental conflicts rarely turn out well for anyone involved.

What do you look for in a business partner?