When building a business, don’t go it alone

Adrienne Cernigoi
Adrienne Cernigoi

Even the biggest names in industry had to start somewhere, and one of the best ways to progress your career is by having a mentor. Vision talks to young entrepreneurs to find out what crucial advice they are being given

Employment – being employed and employing others – is an acute problem for many of the world’s youth. There are currently three young people out of work for every unemployed adult globally. Such a statistic is grim reading, yet some young people are finding another solution to the problem: starting their own enterprise.

There are many hurdles to getting a venture off the ground, not least finding the money to do so, getting the first customer and understanding your market. Still, a problem shared is a problem halved and one often-overlooked area of support is simply having someone to provide friendly advice.

“Generally a young person getting into business doesn’t know what they don’t know,” says John Cull, mentoring consultant with the non-profit global network Youth Business International (YBI). “The role of a mentor is to help, support and challenge a person as they go through transitions in their lives, in this case as they start their business.”

YBI’s network of organisations helps young people in more than 40 countries get their startup ideas going by providing loans and, crucially, pairing them with a business mentor. In one third of 21 countries surveyed, young entrepreneurs said their mentor made more of a positive difference to their business than money, according to a YBI study.

“From their experience, mentors can ask the challenging questions. Decisions about the business will always be made by the entrepreneur, but if it doesn’t work out the mentor can help them think about what they would do differently next time,” says Cull. “Mentors also have a great way of being able to bring creative ideas to the table.”

It is a pillar of support that Juan Ramon Nuñez, a young Argentinian entrepreneur who runs his own community radio station and sound and lighting business, can appreciate.

“An entrepreneur always needs a mentor and particularly at the start of the venture,” says Nuñez, awarded YBI Entrepreneur of the Year in 2009, who now employs five permanent and four casual staff. “In the beginning my income was low compared to what I had projected in my business plan. My mentor told me not to stop looking for ways to maximise income, to assess what services we could provide that would make us different from other businesses.”

But being a successful businessperson yourself does not automatically make a great mentor. Good listening skills, long-term commitment and flexibility to offer support when the entrepreneur needs it most are all crucial, according to Cull.

“We find the successful entrepreneur wants to tell the young person how to run the business, but we tell them to hold back and listen,” explains Cull. “It’s also important the mentor is not too task-focused. [The mentor] may have a background in marketing, operations or finance, but it’s important to take a holistic view.”

The moral and practical support can also encourage young entrepreneurs to go further. “At first I thought I would set up a centre and do something with local kids. That was the limit of my thinking,” says Viola Lam, founder of FS Education Centre in Hong Kong and winner of this year’s YBI Entrepreneur of the Year award. “But my mentor said: ‘If you start a business and you only focus on a certain group of people it’s not good enough. If you have a really good idea, you have to make it big.’”

The same was true for Nuñez, too. His mentor advised him to invest in more equipment with his 7,000 pesos ($795) loan – such as amplifiers, microphones and speakers – so he could cover more events in a day. His company, The Sound of Light, now owns some 70,000 pesos’ worth of equipment.

The mentoring relationship is a two-way street, however. “Mentors love working with people who have got really high energy and a good positive attitude,” observes YBI’s Cull. “And one of the good qualities of both mentor and mentee is that they stick at it.” And that is just good business sense.