I reckon my first business mentor was my Dad. He started his own business, working from home, because, like many people I know, it was the best way of earning a living. His health was very poor so he had to pack in his job. In the five years between me being 13 and 18, when he died, he built a very big business. It was always a micro business, like 95% of the businesses today in the UK.
It became big in income but never had more than six employees. It was a sales agency in the wooden box and pallets industry. Many years later, when I started my own business, I realised that nearly everything useful that I’d learned about enterprise had come from my Dad as my business mentor.
He was an unlikely ace business mentor. My Dad left school at 14, picked everything up as he’d gone along, and was a complete eccentric, a showman and a storyteller who instinctively turned anything formal into a party. At football, Hull City, he had a seat just behind the Directors’ box so that he could hurl abuse and one-liners at them from start to finish. I wouldn’t sit with him.
The point is that what I’d learned in Senior Management, even Managing Director, at two major American multinationals didn’t help me much in my own business. This was despite having received the very best business training and completed two Post Graduate Diplomas in HR Management and Business Administration. All this was next to useless in my own micro business as against the valuable help I gained from my mentors.
My business partner of twenty five years, Clare, felt the same thing. She hadn’t realised it at the time but her corporate jobs and training hadn’t prepared her for running her own business but what she’d learned from her Dad, who had his own property business, was invaluable.
No surprise then that we decided to have a mentor, another micro business owner, for our first couple of years in business. We gave him our corporate contacts and in return he asked us wise questions which stopped us doing many of the foolish things we were about to do. No money exchanged hands although a heck of a lot of money went behind the bar during our, frequently scheduled, mentoring sessions.
Sitting or Standing Up Mentors?
One of the many theories I have, which perversely academic research and government policy has yet to pick up on, is that if you’ve got a primarily ‘standing up’ business you’re best to have a mentor that has a ‘standing up’ business too. ‘Standing up’ businesses would include most building trades, cafes, shops, blues bands, chocolate makers, ice cream makers and micro-breweries.
Similarly if you’re in a ‘sitting down in an office’ type business then choose ‘a sitting down in an office’ type mentor. I’m definitely not saying only get a mentor from a similar trade or industry, only government and BigBiz think in sectors, but do get someone who really understands what you have to do each day.
Oh and beware of men in suits if you’ve got a ‘standing up’ business’ or you’re a woman. I’m sure there are exceptions to these rules of mine for choosing a mentor but there won’t be many.
Sir Jimmy Fixed It for Us Every Day
Wrestler, DJ, marathon runner, TV presenter, volunteer hospital porter and the greatest charity fund raiser of all time, Sir Jimmy Savile, died recently. He was buried in Scarborough, where I live. Thousands turned out to acknowledge his real achievements for the people of Britain both at his service in Leeds and his burial in Scarborough. He was truly a man of the people, an inspiration to many of us, and the very same person on the telly as he was in the cafes and streets of Scarborough.
He made us feel better about life and he genuinely helped many thousands of people through adversity. He was eccentric to the last. He was buried in one of his trademark track suits, in a gold coloured coffin placed at an angle in the grave, so that he ‘could see the sea’. He was also a highly successful micro business owner, millionaire and a cracking volunteer biz and personal mentor.
Two of his proudest possessions were on his mantelpiece in his Scarborough flat. They were individual letters from Princess Di and Prince Charles thanking him for his help to them, as an informal mentor.
Lots of my business owner friends seem a bit crazy. The craziness is often just appearance and behaviour that shows we’re our own boss with our own values, passion and beliefs. Some can wrongly view this, like Sir Jimmy Savile was viewed, as not professional or not to be taken seriously. We are passionate about what we do and it’s bloody hard work doing it but we can be very useful business mentors too.
My businesses have benefited a great deal from the handful of business mentors I’ve had down the years. Most of the mentoring I’ve had is over the phone or nowadays by Skype. I usually contact my mentor when I’ve got a problem or see an opportunity that I want to talk through before taking a decision. I’ve also had a great time and learned a lot as a mentor to others. I have had some training on being a better mentor and I’m going to do some more shortly.
There are lots of places around at the moment where you can find a mentor or get some training to become a better mentor yourself. One such place is the Institute of Enterprise and Entrepreneurs, which I help run, and you can find out more here about Get Mentoring – free mentor training and free mentors.