the value of a mentor

your business. our team. mutual success. champagne toast optional.our focus lies in the realm of small business, but we stay connected to the "big-market" world of venture capital and their "sexy" startups because 1) there's a lot of talented folks who hang out in that neighborhood, and 2) they're consistently sharing valuable experiences and insights about growing businesses.

though much of the perspective and advice associated with growing a large market venture is irrelevant to growing a small business, every once in a while we encounter a universal truth worthy of sharing. today we were inspired by an article published by the venture development center at umass boston. here's our condensed translation for the small business owner ::

why mentors are so valuable
  1. they complete a skills gap :: small business owners rarely have a "team" of high-level thinkers, which means they're even more behind the 8-ball than a big-market startup when it comes to covering all the skills needed to successfully start and grow a business (think marketing, sales, finance, operations, legal, technology, and human resources). bring in a mentor, however, and many of these skill gaps get plugged.
  2. experience with prioritizing :: it's been repeated a gazillion times... to be successful, small business owners need to work on their business rather than in their business. even then, there's an incredible amount of things to do. the sheer volume makes it particularly challenging for a business owner to prioritize. mentors with years of experience (especially with operating small businesses of their own) have the perspective to guide small business owners towards what they should be spending the most time on.
  3. making connections :: experienced mentors will have an extensive network -- more than the typical business owner. they're able to introduce the small business to people who can really help make things happen for their business.
  4. building credibility :: having an experienced mentor can help business owners gain the trust of prospective customers, business partners, bankers and others.
  5. avoiding mistakes :: mentors have "been there, and done that." they’ve already made the mistakes every small business runs the risk of making and can help a small business owner avoid dangerous land mines.
vetting your mentor

the folks at umass rightly posed the question of "how do you know if a mentor has the right qualifications, motivation and time commitment to help?" in response, they came up with a rating system based on four simple questions to help business owners determine if a prospective mentor is likely to meet their needs. again, we've made some slight adjustments to account for the variations associated with building a company for "main street" vs. wall street ::

(attach a score to each of your answers, with 1 being low and 4 being high)

  1. qualifications :: does the mentor have experience successfully building and/or running a small business? has he/she gone through the experience of selling or acquiring another company?
  2. motivation :: does the mentor really care about helping to build your business or is he/she just involved to do business with your company?
  3. attitude :: does the mentor spend a lot of time telling you the “right way” to run a company instead of listening to and asking you questions that get you thinking?
  4. accessibility :: how available is the mentor when you have a burning issue? does the mentor use regular one-to-ones with you as the means of mentorship, or does the mentor swoop in for one-to-manys?

total your score and divide by four. here’s what it means:

1.0 to 2.99 – the mentor is just a contributor.
3.0 to 3.99 – the mentor is, well, a mentor.
4.0 – the mentor is a super mentor, the kind you want.

like the umass venture center, mentorship lies at the core of ZENCubate and all of our other business-building services. we buy into the concept of scoring a "4.0" on their scale, and you should, too.

reflections on simplicity and success

happy new year everyone! we've been off the radar screen for many months creating a lot of exciting change for 2012, and our core theme is "simplicity." as i was listing my goals for the new year recently, my thoughts meandered to martin luther king (we honor him on monday). and this juxtaposition led to my thoughts for this 1st newsletter of the new year.

reflecting on dr. king's accomplishments, i started working backwards -- i wanted to imagine what his list of New Year's resolutions might have looked like. here's what i came up with ::

  1. give great speeches so people will think differently
  2. confront great injustices so people will act differently
  3. repeat as needed to change society
  4. achieve equality

ironically, psychologists claim a big reason most of us flop at maintaining new year's resolutions is because we fail to make them realistic. business gurus say the same thing. sure, being realistic is important. in the context of the times in which he lived, however, many would have said dr. king's goals were not realistic. yet he succeeded. i'm convinced failure is driven more by a lack of simplicity than by a lack of "reality."

why simplicity is key

consider my imaginary resolutions for dr. king. their simplicity articulates their essence. their simplicity fully examines and understands all their complexity, yet is itself uncomplicated. their simplicity orients us to what needs to be done. there's a tremendous amount of complexity wrapped up in a just this little bit of simplicity. once we have simplicity, however, things become easy. and so we succeed.

it's taken years to recognize, but i now realize main street ventures solves the same, big problem for every customer (be they start-ups or established businesses) -- the dire need for simplicity. naturally, our customers don't see it this way... they define their problems in other ways. those who ultimately work with us come to "get it." and they succeed.

which brings me to ZEN

at the end of 2010, this company launched the ZENBungalow. having recognized simplicity has always been our key to creating success, this became our first brand extension clearly driven by the core values of simplicity, clarity, focus and collaboration. though most perceived the bungalow as a "place," it's really an accelerator. we liken it to throwing gasoline on a fire.

this month main street ventures launches two pilot programs driven by these same core values -- ZENCubate and ZENLegal. we're in the process of pushing information out about each on our new website. my professional resolutions for these programs may not be quite as lofty as dr. king's, but they are ambitious ::

  • create communities of like-minded business owners ready to think differently
  • create strategic collaboration among independent businesses so their owners start to act differently
  • repeat as necessary and radically change the success rate for small business

i look forward to sharing more in the days ahead -- especially how simplicity can bring value to small businesses everywhere, including yours.

jack speranza is ceo and founder of main street ventures and passionate about building profitable, independent businesses.