Richard Branson’s Guide to Finding a Mentor

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No matter how smart you are, or how brilliant or disruptive your business concept might be, every entrepreneur needs a good mentor. Someone, somewhere, has already been through what you are experiencing right now, and he has come out the other side armed with invaluable insights.

In fact, the difference between a budding entrepreneur who merely shows promise and one who is already enjoying some success often comes down to mentoring. Good advice can be just as crucial as funding in the early stages of an enterprise.

The need for a mentor is obvious, yet seeking one out can be quite difficult and daunting. How do you find the right person?

There are many different routes, some which I have described in previous columns. Often, you have to do some research. Try going to industry events like lunches, seminars, talks and conferences. Join community groups — your local chamber of commerce is a great place to start. Chambers of commerce often host networking events and meetings that bring beginning entrepreneurs and successful business people together. Talk to people, listen to their stories and pursue further meetings with those whom you can learn from.

Another great place to find a potential mentor’s name is online. Look for sector– or industry-specific events and groups on Facebook; subscribe to useful newsletters; follow interesting or relevant individuals from your region on Twitter or LinkedIn; then get in touch and ask questions –just like you can with me.

Be sure that you choose someone who has experience and connections within your area and level of business. If you’re a budding entrepreneur in, say, the building and home repair industry, you shouldn’t waste your time trying to court a senior executive at a multinational engineering company. Focus on finding someone who has started a venture that’s similar to yours, and who understands the trials and tribulations of building a business in that area.

Keep in mind that an adviser who offers his time in return for compensation is not the same thing as a mentor. While advisers and consultants can be very helpful, true mentors are effective partly because they are only interested in helping others succeed.

If you don’t yet have someone in mind who might fit the bill, make a list of successful people in your community. Is there someone on that list whom you admire and respect? Ask her to lunch, to coffee, or simply ask for 30 minutes of her time to chat.

When you do decide to approach someone, make sure that you don’t go in blind – know what you want to ask. Explain what excites you about your service or product, be honest about your fears, and ask for feedback.

It is rarely a good idea to make a hard and formal request for mentoring upfront, like “Will you be my mentor?” Such relationships blossom on their own. A mentor-mentee relationship takes time to grow, so start by asking for simple advice on one project or problem, and move on from there.

When you do locate a good mentor, he will serve as an example, a sounding board and, ultimately, a friend. Done well, mentorship is rewarding for both of you. It’s important to nurture the relationship, so find fun ways to meet regularly, even without a business agenda.

Mentoring has had such a profound impact on my life and Virgin’s success that I feel it’s paramount to any promising businessperson’s journey. As I have written before, I attribute much of the success of Virgin Atlantic to my relationship with my own mentor, Sir Freddie Laker, the founder of Laker Airways. I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere in the airline industry without Freddie’s down-to-earth wisdom. He was actually the one who told me to make myself the face of the company – a piece of advice that has influenced my entire approach to business.

If you are in a position to share the skills you have learned, you should give back by becoming a mentor yourself. Finding success is hard work, and entrepreneurs could use a little help along the way.

As the American businessman Zig Ziglar once said: “A lot of people have gone further than they thought they could because someone else thought they could.” So get out there and find the right mentor to help you along the path to success.

RICHARD BRANSON CONTRIBUTOR

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