Try to imagine a world where Richard Branson never met Freddie Laker. Do you think Virgin would be the powerhouse it is today?
Now try to imagine, if Henry Ford never approached Thomas Edison at that convention in New York, would our world look like it does today?
Before we move on, do your best to think of a universe where Warren Buffett never contacted Benjamin Graham to ask for his advice. Is he still one of the richest men alive?
Take any successful entrepreneur, athlete, teacher or artist in the world and I guarantee you they’ll be able to point out at least one mentor who made a difference in their lives. No matter what kind of industry you’re in, what kind of career you’re building, or what kind of person you are—the jury’s out, having a great mentor is a key factor in becoming successful.
In fact, according to the 650 startups surveyed in the Startup Genome Report, “access to helpful mentors” was the number one influence on success.
But the problem young, ambitious entrepreneurs have isn’t with understanding how important a mentor is to their growth. The problem most face is figuring out how to find a mentor in the first place. It’s in no way a straightforward path.
Fear not, as Foundr is here to break it all down for you. The following is our step-by-step guide to finding a great business mentor.
What is a mentor?
In the simplest terms, a mentor is anyone with more experience and knowledge than you in a given industry or skill you want to master.
The cases I mentioned before — Branson and Laker, Ford and Edison — were the classical examples of young ambitious man who wanted to learn from the masters of their industries. The goal of the former wasn’t to make money or take something from the latter; it was to learn.
Mentorships are often seen as a one-way street where somehow an experienced person gives out advice to a younger one for the sake of it. They’re not.
Mentorships simply are a more formal way of referring to a relationship between two people who equally benefit each other; each one learning from the other. Maybe the mentor can invest in its mentoree startup, as it happened with Mark Zuckerberg and Sean Parker. Or it could be that the mentor wants to make an impact in the world through the actions of its mentoree.
Whatever the case, everything you do to build and foster a relationship with your mentors must come from an abundance mentality; one that benefits everyone involved.
Why should I find a mentor?
The concept of mentorship is one of the oldest forms of education in the world, and has been around for thousands of years.
In Joseph Campbell’s study of human myths and legends, he found that the mentor is a recurring character in every great story, regardless of culture and time. The mentor is someone who, through their experience and wisdom, provides the hero of the story with the advice and training they need to tackle what lies ahead.
It’s an archetype you’ll find popping up in all kinds of stories past and present. From Chiron the trainer-of-heroes in Greek mythology to Will Smith in Hitch.
But more than being a teacher, a mentor is someone who also acts as a trusted advisor, a role model, and a friend. A mentor offers the ability to help bring out your potential.
“A mentor is someone who sees more talent and ability within you, than you see in yourself, and helps bring it out of you.” – Bob Proctor
Entrepreneurs, in particular, stand to benefit from mentorships, because the fact of the matter is, it’s nearly impossible to formally teach entrepreneurship. There are just too many variables and factors that can change from industry to industry, and entrepreneur to entrepreneur.
A study of 360 novice entrepreneurs by the Academy of Entrepreneurship found that mentors helped young entrepreneurs primarily in two ways. First was helping novice entrepreneurs collect new information to bypass their lack of experience, and second was improving their proteges’ soft skills and process-driven abilities.
Unlike other disciplines, you can’t just learn entrepreneurship by sitting in a classroom and passively absorbing information. More than anything else, the best way to learn more about entrepreneurship is to actually go out there and do it yourself.
But the issue with learning by doing is that it’s not the most efficient method to learn something. The journey from novice to expert is one that requires a lot of mistakes and pitfalls along the way, something that most entrepreneurs cannot afford. This is why mentors are so important.
They’ve been there and done that. They’ve gone to the school of hard knocks and come out all the better for it, and they can give you the advice they wish they had when they first started.
Mentors can provide that individualized support that formal education can’t. There are a million and one different things to keep a track of as an entrepreneur, and it can often be confusing and disorienting trying to figure out what’s important and what’s not. Mentors cut through the noise and give you the guide to what should be your priority.
To this day, mentorship remains one of the most effective ways for entrepreneurs to learn more about their industry, and to understand opportunities in entrepreneurship overall.
What you want in a mentor
Not all mentors are the same, so the first thing we want to figure out is what kind of mentor you should be looking for. You need to find the one that’s compatible with you and your startup.
You also have to remember that mentors aren’t silver bullets that’ll suddenly turn your life around. Just because you have access to someone who’s older, more knowledgeable, and more experienced than you doesn’t mean they’re going to magically accelerate your career. You have to go into it with intention.
Generally speaking, what you’re looking for in a mentor is someone who is more experienced than you in a specific area where you need to improve. You want someone who will challenge you when necessary and be supportive when you need it most.
The last thing you want from a mentor is someone who never criticizes you. If someone doesn’t bother telling you why you’re wrong, it means they’re not invested in your success or your failure. You want someone who will disagree with you and tell you why you’re wrong, and you need to be humble enough to know that it comes from a good place.
Most important, they need to be a great communicator and teacher. The best mentors won’t spoon-feed you the answer, but will instead give you the tools to figure it out yourself.
Before you go off trying to connect with every influencer in the world, first figure out what it is you want from a mentor. Otherwise you’re going with the spray-and-pray method of networking here and hoping that whoever you find is going to be helpful to you.
There aren’t any formal guidelines when it comes to mentorship. They’re, first and foremost, relationships that are built on mutual trust and respect, and they’ll evolve over time depending on how you grow and what your needs are at the time.
Proteges not only learn new things from their mentors, but they actually start to take on some of their mentor’s skills and patterns of behavior. Don’t just go for the biggest name you know; actually try to find a mentor that’s in the position and place you want to be.
Once you know what it is you want to learn, then we can go about finding you the right mentor.
How to meet potential mentors
In order to find a mentor, you must first know exactly where it is you need to get to get in contact with one. The problem is people don’t usually advertise themselves as looking for an entrepreneurial apprentice.
However, getting in contact with a potential mentor is actually easier than you think. Today there are a variety of ways you can find yourself a mentor and networking has never been easier.
Here are just some of the ways you can get connected with the mentor you need:
Recently there has been a huge surge of formal mentorship programs and businesses designed to connect early-stage entrepreneurs with experienced mentors. For many early-stage entrepreneurs this is the most direct and straightforward way of getting in touch with a mentor.
There are essentially two different types of mentorship programs that you can join. There are formal programs like Coach.me and The Muse, designed to match entrepreneurs with personal mentors for a fee.
While these programs can be extremely helpful, they can also be a bust if you’re not matched up with the right person.
“Unfortunately, recent research has revealed that those in formal mentoring programs often fail to deliver on their rosy promises, and the participants may be left helpless and disillusioned.” – Ellen Ensher, author of Power Mentoring..
A common mistake many people make when searching for a mentor is that they’ll focus on the position and completely ignore the person. They’ll see the success and the accolades and completely ignore whether or not that person is actually a suitable mentor for them to begin with.
While these programs are great and I wholeheartedly support them, just make sure that you don’t dive in with your eyes closed and expect to be matched with an amazing mentor.
When it comes to networking and getting in touch with other entrepreneurs, I can never get enough of Meetup. The platform allows you to easily search for any local entrepreneurship groups and events that are happening near you and immediately get in contact with other entrepreneurs.
In fact, it was actually through Meetup event that I met Nathan Chan.
At the time, I was I still doing freelance consulting work and I happened to attend an event where Nathan was speaking. Through pure chance I ended up speaking to him for over an hour once the event was over and by the end of it, I walked away with his email and an invitation to write for Foundr. Fast forward a couple months later and I’m the Content Crafter for Foundr, and I have a mentor to guide me through the world of startups and entrepreneurship!
This was actually the first week of us working together
Never underestimate the power of actually going to an event and connecting with other entrepreneurs face-to-face. Go to an event and talk to everyone.You never know who you’ll meet. I sure as hell never thought I’d meet Nathan, and actually talking to someone in person is going to do much more for you than sending out an email or chatting over Skype.
Another way to take advantage of these events is to take a look at the speakers list. Meetup groups often bring in high-profile entrepreneurs to speak at these events; see if there’s anyone there who you’d want as a mentor.
Sometimes it’s just as easy as buying a ticket and talking to them after the event, like I did, or even volunteering to help out so you get more of a chance to talk to them one on one.
As you likely know, LinkedIn is a social media platform made exclusively for working professionals. Just by having a LinkedIn profile, you’re able to immediately start networking with potential mentors.
The reason networking on LinkedIn is so powerful is because it harnesses the power of the referral. With LinkedIn you’re able to find out whether or not you and your prospective mentor share any mutual connections and whether or not you can get introduced.
It’s in our nature to trust a referral from a friend over anything else. Being able to have a mutual friend introduce you is going to get you noticed far more than an endless stream of emails.
By using the “Advanced” feature, you’re even able to narrow down your list of potential mentors by filtering them through industry, location, school and more.
You’ll be able to generate a list of potential mentors that you can get in contact with. Even if they’re a second or third connection it just means you get an opportunity to expand your professional network even further.
Your own network
The thing about trying to find a mentor is that we often forget to see the forest for the trees. By that I mean that we’re so focused on landing that one high-profile mentor that we forget to take advantage of the potential mentors that are already in our lives.
While it’s great to want to have a high-profile entrepreneur like Tim Ferriss or Richard Branson as a mentor, it doesn’t mean that you can’t get quality mentorship from someone who may have a lower profile, but is super effective and knowledgeable. Besides Sir Freddie Laker, one of Richard Branson’s most influential mentors was his uncle, who greatly influenced his outlook on life and the way he does business.
“Stop the ‘will you be my mentor?’ emails and start being present to embrace the learning opportunities all around you. Ask your colleagues and executive team members for their points of view. Seek advice from your direct leader or leader once removed. Start having conversations and soaking in the mentorship moments.” – Robert Herjavec, founder and CEO of the Herjavec group.
This is my former high school teacher Pete Grayson, who basically taught me everything I know about filmmaking and inspired my passion for film, something that I still dabble in today whenever I get a chance. Today he’s the co-founder of ReelArts, and after all these years he’s still the one I turn to every time I need help with anything film-related. Not only because he has years of experience in the industry, but because I can always trust him to tell it to me straight.
Getting someone hugely famous like Seth Godin to mentor you is great, but there are likely people in your life who have decades of experience or just a really sharp outlook on your field, who will probably give you much better, more honest advice.
When all else fails, you can always go for the Hail Mary pass and try reaching out to a potential mentor cold.
The reason I call this the Hail Mary tactic is because high-profile entrepreneurs get hundreds of emails a day from people asking them for advice or to be a mentor. Plus, emailing someone just screams “business proposition.” If there’s a chance you can get in touch with a mentor and organically develop a relationship with any of the above methods exhaust those options before sending that email.
Once you have their email address you’ll be able to reach out to them, but before you do, make sure you have something of value to offer them. Remember to serve first and ask later.
Otherwise expect a virtual “thanks for emailing me, don’t let the doorknob hit on you on the way out.”
Here’s an example email from our intern, Greg.
We get lots of people emailing us at Foundr asking to work for us, but what impressed us about Greg and made him stand out of the crowd was how well-constructed his initial email was. At the time, we weren’t looking for anyone, but the surprising thing was that Greg was persistent. He’d email us every couple of months kindly reminding us of his services. Next thing I knew, we had an intern.
Before you email a potential mentor, take a second to stop and think about what’s in it for them. Be sure to check out our free eBook on how to cold-email high profile influencers.
What you should never say if you want to find a mentor
On that note, if you’re going to learn anything from this article, I want you to take these phrases out of your vocabulary:
“Will you be my mentor?” and “I just want to learn.”
If you want to immediately say goodbye to any chance of finding someone be your mentor, say these words.
Not only do these phrases immediately place your would-be mentor in an incredibly awkward position, but it also makes you come off as immature and self-absorbed. And yet, there are millions of young entrepreneurs out there uttering these phrases and making these mistakes and wondering why they can’t find a mentor.
The face of every would-be mentor when they hear those words
You know what people really don’t like? Feeling used.
Everyone hates feeling like they’re being used and that someone doesn’t actually care about them. When you ask someone to be your mentor, or that you’re looking for an opportunity to learn, you’re explicitly telling them all you care about is how you can use their knowledge for your benefit.
You’re also showing off the fact that you have nothing of worth to bring to the table and that all you care about is what your mentor can do for you. Not what you can do for your mentor.
“Mentorship is not a life vest. You cannot reach and claw for people to save you from the deep end, or even save you from the shallow end— some people are looking for mentors in the shallow end, not even doing anything that warrants a mentor. It should be mutually beneficial. I believe that if you’re looking for someone to help you and you’re not bringing anything to the table, that’s really not cool. You should always bring something to your mentor’s life.” – Myleik Teele, founder of curlBOX.
Before you go off asking someone to be your mentor, show them why you’d be a great apprentice.
Serve first, ask later
When seeking a mentor, you always need to be thinking about what’s in it for them. Mentorships are like any other business relationship, you have to be ready to show that you’re also able to provide value, and not simply looking to extract it.
The concept of “serve first, ask later” isn’t a new concept and it’s something I’ve written about extensively before. It’s something you need to ingrain into your psyche if you ever want to get in touch with an influencer.
I can guarantee you that the people you want to be your mentor get hundreds, if not thousands, of requests asking them to be their mentor or asking for their advice. You need to find a way to separate yourself from the pack and the best way to do that is to always provide value.
It’s kind of like wearing a suit to a job interview while everyone else just shows up. Just by putting in that little extra bit of effort, you’re sure to stand out from the crowd.
In Kyle Gray’s book The College Entrepreneur, he describes how most mentors aren’t looking for a student that they can just share their knowledge with. If anything, they’re looking for an apprentice because they need that extra bit of help. Remember that a mentorship is not charity; it’s a relationship.
Here are some different ways you can provide that extra bit of help, enough so that you get noticed.
Dress for the job you want
Just like any other entrepreneur, your potential mentor’s most precious resource is their time. If you can find a way to help them save time then you’ve immediately provided them value.
So instead of asking them to take you on and to train you up, something that costs them time, show them that you can do the job right off the bat. Show them how you can help them save time and why they should remember your name.
Essentially what you’re doing is conducting an audit of all the problems your prospective mentor’s business is facing and creating a list. Now take a look at that list of problems and potential improvements and, here’s the important bit, get to work.
Start solving these problems before they get a chance to. If it’s a PR problem, then perhaps write a PR campaign for them. If you think their blog is lacking then whip up some articles you know they’d like. Whatever it is, do the work before you even approach them.
It doesn’t have to be extensive or crazy in-depth but do make sure that it’s up to a professional standard. After that, just present your solution to your would-be mentor and see what happens. The very worst case scenario is that they’ll politely reject you, but at the very least you’ll have gotten your foot in the door and they’ll almost always remember your name.
Feature them in something
Even if you’re not a content powerhouse like Foundr, highlighting someone’s work you admire can lead to making a connection. If you do have a popular platform, like a podcast or a blog, you want to avoid using it as a bargaining chip exactly, to protect its integrity as a dependable source. But if you look up to someone’s work and think they’d be a great subject or guest contributor, that can get you on that person’s radar as someone who offers value.
Even for readers who aren’t running a content-based business, don’t worry, because as long as you have any platform to publish content, you’re good to go. This can range anywhere from social media posts to forums like Reddit or Quora.
The most straightforward way to go about it is to give them a mention in something like a blog post. Once it’s published all you have to do then is send out an email or tweet letting them know that you’ve discussed their work in your platform of choice.
Here’s a mentor request email template you can use courtesy of Matthew Barby.
Another way to do this is to just share their content. If they have a blog post or a video that they’ve just published, share it to your own followers. Actually, leave a comment that generates discussion. Little details like this go a lot further than you’d think in helping you stand out from the crowd.
Sometimes you need to a little outside-the-box thinking if you want to provide the right kind of value to your mentor.
This is when doing a little research and paying attention to your potential mentor actually pays off, because you just might find yourself in a position to provide some unconventional value.
Brian had been following Joel and his work for two years and he knew that he wanted to get in touch with him. The problem was, as most of you reading this can probably relate to, there wasn’t a clear-cut way for him to provide value to Joel. So he got creative.
He knew two things: Joel was new to San Diego and he probably wasn’t connected with the local entrepreneurial scene yet. As someone who had a network of local entrepreneurs and having lived in San Diego for three years, Brian knew he had a unique way of providing value.
Another way to go about providing value is to just do something you know they’ll enjoy. You can do what Marc Ecko does for example and send them a “swag bomb,” basically a personalized gift that you know they’d like. Like how he got in contact with Spike Lee by sending him a sweatshirt with a custom design of Malcolm X on it.
Providing value doesn’t have to be strictly about helping someone professionally; value can come in a variety of shapes and sizes. So read over their blog posts, check out their interviews, and who knows what you might find out about them that you can help out with. Sometimes it can even be as simple as showing someone around San Diego.
Friend first, mentor second
I’ll be completely honest with you. When I first met Nathan I had absolutely no idea who he, or what Foundr was. I wish I could tell you I was this super intrepid young entrepreneur who was pounding on doors trying to make an impact. But in all honesty, at the time, I was just psyched that someone was willing to pay me for my work.
It actually wasn’t until I met him for the first time that I started to get an idea of what Foundr was all about. It actually didn’t fully hit me how big of a deal Nathan was until a few months into working at Foundr. I casually mentioned to a friend that I was writing for some magazine called Foundr and they stopped and stared at me.
At the risk of sounding obnoxious, when I look back, I think the fact that I was so utterly clueless about who Nathan was, actually was my biggest strength in developing a relationship with him. I wasn’t, how do I put this, weird about it.
Something I see a lot of would-be proteges do when trying to find a mentor is make the mistake of putting someone on a pedestal.
The moment you put someone on a pedestal, they have no other choice but to look down on you.
I’ve seen people do an insane amount of research on someone they want to be their mentor. They’ll read through every blog post, listen to every interview, study their company from when they started to where they are now, believing that they’re just preparing themselves.
So when they finally meet that person, all they want to talk about is them and how much they love their work. All the while, their hero is sitting at the table awkwardly looking back at them while smiling politely.
Please don’t be that person. While it’s great to do a bit of research beforehand and show respect, once you start getting into hero-worshiping someone, you disqualify them as a mentor.
Your mentor’s purpose in life is not to be your mentor. When you only see them by their title and position and not as the person they are, you’re actually disrespecting them.
The best way to respect someone is to view them as the person they are, flaws and all. Not only will this boost your confidence, but you’ll stop trying so hard to impress them with what you think they want to see and instead you’ll focus on forging an actual friendship.
If a mentor can’t be your friend, they’re probably not the right mentor for you. That doesn’t mean you have make your mentor the best man at your wedding, but a sense of familiarity and mutual respect needs to develop for the mentorship to work.
While there aren’t any formal guidelines on what a mentor relationship should be like, it has been proven that the best mentor relationships happen organically, without any pretense.
The best mentor relationships are the ones where you realize you can call on them for help and they’ll respond because they’re your friend and not because they have the label of being your mentor.
Asking for advice
Follow these steps, and sure enough, you’ll have developed a mentor relationship. That means you’ll have built a rapport to the point where it’s natural and expected for you to reach out for advice and support.
What’s the best way to go about this? First things first, make sure you’re asking for the right kind of advice.
You know what’s frustrating? When someone asks for advice that a quick Google search could easily solve.
When you ask for this kind of advice, you’re actually implying that your time is more valuable than their time. No one wants to mentor someone who isn’t willing to do even the most basic research themselves.
Sure it might be okay to ask this kind of quick question every once in a while, but do it constantly, and it gets very annoying, very fast.
Let’s be very clear about what a mentor is and isn’t:
A mentor is someone who will help guide you to the answer you need and will occasionally give you some advice.
What a mentor isn’t is someone that you can constantly ask for help every time you encounter any form of difficulty.
It’s kind of like asking your mentor to be your personal GPS who will tell you exactly what it is you need to do. Instead a mentor is more like a map. It is up to you to figure out which way to go.
Even then, don’t expect anything more than a hand-drawn map
In my personal experience, I’ve always found that the best way to get someone to mentor you isn’t to ask how to get started. It’s much better to get started and to ask for advice along the way.
Now that you have a mentor who’s willing to advise you when the situation calls for it here’s the next, if not the most important, step. Actually putting their advice into action.
And once you’ve put their advice into action, don’t be afraid to occasionally update them about your progress and how well their advice worked out for you. If you’re worried that you’re annoying them, don’t be. You’re actually honoring them by showing them how big of an impact they made towards your success. When people give advice they want to know how it worked out.
Not only will this give you further opportunities to deepen your friendship with them but it’ll also make them much more invested about you and your journey.
Agreeing to disagree
Just like any other relationship, at some point you’re going to realize that you and your mentor aren’t going to see eye-to-eye on everything. That’s okay because it is literally impossible for two people to be completely in sync with one another.
At some point in time, if your mentor cares about you, they’re going to call you out on something. They’ll challenge you, maybe criticize you, and it’s going to sting. This is when things can get tricky.
You can shrug it off as a simple disagreement or a full-blown falling out, ball’s in your court. But depending on the level of disagreement, it might even have an impact on whether this is a mentorship that continues for the long term.
The wrong move, however, is to just check out at the first sign of conflict. Don’t forget that this is exactly what you signed up for. The truth is that if your mentor isn’t actively challenging you, you don’t have a very good mentor.
They’re there to challenge you, not give a blank thumbs up to your every move. Taking criticism can be tough, but remember they’re not criticizing you as a person. Try to take it as a compliment, because they care enough about your success to want you to do better.
At the same time, that doesn’t mean you should blindly follow their advice at all times.
You probably chose your mentor because they have years of experience on you and definitely know a thing or two about to achieve success. But that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible, or that the way for them is necessarily the way for you.
There are countless examples out there in the world of experts who made the wrong call. Experts who, despite their decades of experience, told entrepreneurs like Darrell Wade, Jordan Harbringer, and Richard Branson that they’d never be successful.
At the end of the day, the person running your business is you, and no one else but you will ever fully understand the situation you’re in or the problems you’re facing. While it’s important to seriously take into consideration the advice your mentor gives you, remember that you’re the one calling the shots here.
Most of all don’t make a decision you’re uncomfortable with because you’re afraid of upsetting your mentor. Don’t be afraid to challenge them when you feel it’s necessary. Another way of giving back to your mentor and bringing value to the table is just having your own opinion.
Remember that all a mentor is there to do is equip you with the tools you need in order to succeed. How you choose to use those tools is up to you.
Ready To Find Your Mentor?
Now that you’ve made the introduction and formed a connection, here’s one more important piece to leave you with—make sure you maintain that relationship. Mentorship isn’t like an internship that you do over the summer where you get in and get out.
No, a mentorship is first and foremost a relationship, and it’s up to you to make sure that the relationship keeps going. Make sure that you’re always giving back to your mentor whenever possible.
Besides that, enjoy the fact that you’ve found yourself a mentor. They’ll be there to help guide you through thick and thin and take you to the next level.
Do you have a mentor? How did you find them and what are they teaching you? Let us know in the comments below!