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?

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?

Follow These 7 Tips for a Better Investor Pitch & Attract the Right Investors

Starting your own business? You’re gonna need some cash.

There are plenty of common and not-so-common ways to raise money for your startup. Your chosen fundraising mechanisms depend in large part on where you’re starting, what you intend to do with the money you raise and how you see your growth trajectory unfolding.

“Most financial professionals caution startup founders to avoid excessive leverage at an early stage,” says Fergus Cleaver, a New Zealand-based accountant and shareholder in Cleaver Partners. “Taking on too much debt, or giving away too much equity at an early stage, can lengthen time to profitability, hamper long-term growth, or even result in a loss of company control earlier than planned.”

In other words, says Cleaver, bootstrapping is preferable to loans and equity investments. But it’s not always practical, especially for founders launching capital-intensive businesses in capital-poor networks. If you need to raise outside funds for your new company, you’re very likely going to have to pitch your idea to investors who’ve never heard of you—and who hear multiple pitches (sometimes dozens) per day.

Pitching to investors requires you to do two things simultaneously: identify investors with whom you can work over the long term and tailor your pitch to their needs and preferences. These are not easy tasks, but they must be done.

How to Identify the “Right” Investors: What to Look For

“Attracting investors who share your company’s values and believe wholeheartedly in your vision as you’ve outlined it is nearly as important as attracting growth capital in the first place,” says Cleaver. “Investors who don’t see eye to eye with you, or who fundamentally disagree with your vision, can impede your growth and actively stymie your pursuit of mission-critical goals.

“Of course, most unsuitable investors won’t tell you that you’re unsuitable,” he adds. “You must learn to recognize the signs of suitability (or lack thereof) yourself.”

What does a suitable investor look like? That depends on the nature of your startup and your long-term vision for its growth. To start, you can keep some or all of these considerations in mind:

  • Focus Areas: Which industries and sub-industries does the investor favor? Ideally, you want to pitch to investors that deal mostly or exclusively with companies in your niche, as such investors will be more likely to provide useful advice and guidance throughout the investment term.
  • Time Horizon: How long does the investor want to remain involved? Some VCs look for quick exits—as short as 12–24 months. By contrast, many private equity firms are happy to keep companies on the books for five, seven, even ten years or more. If you’re not looking to sell quickly, avoid in-and-out investors.
  • Investment Goals: What sort of return does the investor seek? Do your growth plans line up with those expectations? It’s a waste of everyone’s time to go after investors whose goals don’t align with your own.
  • Relationship With Portfolio: Does the investor take an active role in mentoring and even managing portfolio companies? If you’re looking for a passive investor who’ll stay above the day-to-day fray, avoid investors who pride themselves on their activism. On the other hand, if you’re an inexperienced founder, it’ll likely be helpful to have seasoned pros in your corner.

Fergus Cleaver on Tailoring Your Investor Pitch

Now that you have an idea of what your ideal investor should look like, you need to hone your pitch accordingly. Every investor is different, and it’s tough to craft a pitch nimble enough to speak to each one on an individual basis, but the best pitches tend to share these key characteristics:

1. A Personal Touch

Passion sells. So do compelling personal stories. Infuse your pitch with both, tying the company you’re trying to build to personal experiences you’ve had or background stories that inform your life. This can be as simple as relating your company’s origin story with a personal touch—e.g., what personal experience crystallized the idea of founding your company?

2. Exhaustive Detail

Investors love detail: data, projections, personas, anything that provides an ostensibly objective picture of your company’s prospects and probability of success. Go into more detail than you think you need at first. If the feedback from your first few pitches suggests you’ve gone overboard, you can always subtract detail from your deck.

3. A Point (Fast)

Investors are busy. Really busy. You’re never going to be the only pitch on a VC’s daily docket, so be respectful of everyone’s time and get to your point—the elevator pitch, brass tacks or whatever you want to call it—fast.

4. Lots and Lots of Visuals

Your pitch needs to be visually appealing, even if its meat includes lots of dreary numbers and dry prose. If you can incorporate stage props, like prototypes or downloadable apps, so much the better.

5. Practice, Practice, Practice

Just don’t let prospective investors see you practice. You want to get that done before you walk into the arena. You don’t have to deliver a lofty monologue worthy of a presidential address, but you can’t “um,” “ah” or awkwardly pause your way through a quality pitch. For better or worse, unpolished pitches make founders seem unsure, even if they have full confidence in their ideas.

6. Clear Path to Profitability

Your pitch should leave no ambiguity as to how your company plans to make money, and when. At the end of the day, every investor wants a return on investment. If you can’t make the case that your company is going to provide that, why bother with the pitch at all?

7. Unique Elements

In a full-bore fundraising round, you’re liable to deliver your pitch dozens or even hundreds of times. That can get boring, no matter how passionate you are about the project. Put in the extra time to make each pitch a bit different than the last, whether by incorporating personal details about the people to whom you’re pitching (do your homework!) or tying the discussion to subjects of local or current interest.
How are you tailoring your pitch to attract the right kind of investors?