Do you have someone you can turn to for advice and support? These four small business owners share just how much their mentors have helped them develop and grow – in both good times and challenging ones.
Many small business owners say the lack of a bigger team around them is one of the hardest things to manage – particularly when it comes to having a sounding board, needing advice or making a call on a tough decision. For some, the answer is finding a mentor.
“Having a small business can be lonely and [you can doubt yourself a lot],” admits Catherine Charest – owner of clothing label Louv. “A mentor gives you support and a helping hand, which is incredibly powerful.”
Julia Ewert, who runs a successful speaking and training business, agrees. “Every successful business person needs a support team – people who don’t necessarily work for or with you, but are key instruments in your support band,” she says. “My business has definitely grown by having them as part of mine.”
Interestingly, the ways her business has increased is actually down to Ewert herself, but it was her carefully selected mentors who gave her the push or direction she needed. Ewert has two business advisors that she goes to for counsel – Greg Rogers and Linda Grenfell. After years of informally asking them for their opinions, she decided to ask that they take on a more official role and formally mentor her. That meant catching up regularly face-to-face or via Skype, with phone calls and emails in between to support the bigger conversations.
Ewert was savvy enough to recognise the mentors she sought and secured filled gaps in her own personal development. Based off the friendly feedback Grenfell had given her to date, Ewert knew she would challenge her and push her to be honest. “She builds my confidence by showing me that I already know the all the answers to my challenges. She helps me see how simply a decision can be made and remove all the extra noise I have going on in my head.”
Rogers offered a different angle. He runs a business in a similar field, which means his advice is based around industry specific experience and growth. “Greg helps me zero in on what I am trying to achieve at each milestone and not to get ahead of myself,” Ewert explains “He focusses on asking questions to help me find my own solutions. … For example, he helped me complete a proposal to a prospective new client. I had so many ideas but in a few simple questions, he made me realise that there was only one solution I should be proposing.”
Aleeda Lowe started up pram cleaning company The Pram Cleaners after having her three sons and recognising the gap in the market. She too, sought out someone in a complementary role in her industry for advice. “My business coach is Rob Mesite from BabySafe Child Restraints,” Lowe says. “Not only is Rob a kind and lovely man, he is also a leading expert [in his field].”
Having someone local with so much knowledge of the area, client base and products was invaluable for Lowe. As her business has grown, she has been able to send business back Mesite’s way, with the two companies a natural and non-competitive fit for one another. “Rob has recommended me and fed me so much work,” says Lowe, gratefully. “I went from doing pram cleaning as a side gig, to becoming the leading cleaner on the north side of Sydney.”
Practically, Mesite has helped Lowe make many marketing and branding choices for her business. He helped advise on a suitable business name, gave her direction for advertising and has supported her networking with clients and businesses that Lower says has created huge impact on her customer base.
When it comes to the nitty-gritty of contracts and broader business opportunities, Mesite’s experience and longevity in the industry has been a much needed and trusted support for Lowe. “I was recently approached by a world-famous online store to work with them at an expo,” she shares. “Rob was immediately available to give me advice and look over their proposal. I had no idea what I was doing, and he helped me weigh up the pros and cons of the offer.”
Although they speak often on the phone, given that he is close by, it’s easy for the two to meet up in person – particularly when Lowe needs a hand working out how to dissemble a tricky pram! “I can’t count the amount of times I have randomly shown up to his workshop asking for help,” she laughs.
For others, finding a mentor could be even closer than a local business with shared values and complementary client bases. Bricklayer Tommy Hough, owner of Pro Brick and Build admits it was a natural fit for him to seek out his father Terry for advice. “I worked for him for 11 years, learning, and left on good terms. I can ask him, or any of the senior guys on his team, how to tackle any problem which occurs,” he says.
Like Lowe, Hough has found the practical experience associated with longevity in business is often the most valuable tool a mentor can apply to a small business that’s starting out. “Every predicament in business has already been sorted out, it’s just finding someone who’s experienced the predicament previously and asking those people the steps they took to sort it,” Hough says. “Anyone who’s successful at anything has had advice. Not all of it is good advice, it’s all just people’s opinions on things and it’s up to you to sort through what will work for you and your situation.”
While Hough appreciates the ease of being able to ask a question via text or email, he says nothing beats a sit-down discussion for advice when things get a bit more serious. His tip? Always be happy to shout your potential mentor a free lunch or coffee to keep them happy – and talking.
Recently, he took his father out for an hour-long meal to discuss a situation he had been stressing over, a client who was lagging on payment. “I was strung along for months,” he said. Frustrated, Hough had found out where the client lived and was contemplating a door knock approach when his father explained that wouldn’t help matters. “With Dad and his team guiding us, we went through the Security of Payment Act and jumped through all the hoops, learning in the process and getting our money in the end.”
Charest agrees that sometimes it simply takes a fresh set of eyes on a situation to point out the best way forward. She was drawn to her mentor Chris Stoikos, founder of The Beard Club, because he is a highly successful online entrepreneur, with tried-and-trusted experience to back up his suggestions, but also because he is a bold, fresh thinker. “I like disruptive people and Chris is all about creating new ways of doing things,” she says.
Her business is still young and growing and it’s Stoikos’s mentoring – often received simply via email – which has helped Charest make big and successful changes.
“I started a children’s label a while back (Arakun) and on the side I was working on a new women label (Louv),” she says. “I was planning to keep both separate. Chris advised me to merge everything together under Louv and to pour all my energy and resources towards one label only. What you focus on grows, so it’s important to be really clear and focused. .[His advice] made so much sense and it was very liberating. It gave me confidence and clarity to go ahead with the change.”
The next step for your small business success? Finding a mentor who supports you, believes in your small business and has experience to back up their advice.