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Future founders series: a mentor could be the secret ingredient to start-up success

22 August 2019


The recent ‘Future Founders’ report from Octopus revealed that more young people (aged 14-25) would be willing to start their own business if they knew of more people who had taken the leap themselves. As part of our Future Founders series, we asked George Whitehead, Octopus Venture Partner Manager at Octopus Ventures, and Emma Burt, who is a Senior Product Manager in our Technology Centre of Expertise, to tell us how mentors can deliver big wins for anyone looking to launch their own business.

At Octopus, we believe coaching and mentoring helps people to own their career development. But mentoring is even more important if you’re thinking of launching your own business.

Over the next twelve months, Octopus will be offering employees the chance to pitch us their new business ideas. Successful entrepreneurs will join the Springboard programme and have access to some funding, a four-month sabbatical from their jobs and a range of Octopus resources to turn their idea into a successful business. And they’ll also get hand-picked mentors to help them get off the ground.

Mentors push you and hold you accountable

Emma explains, “mentoring, in general, is great because a really good mentor will challenge you, they’ll make you feel uncomfortable. I remember our previous chief operating officer telling me that she had a mentor who she dreaded seeing because every time she was asked ‘have you done this yet?’ but she knew she needed it to keep her on her toes and to keep her challenged”.

Mentors are a great sounding board

Talking about your next moves with a mentor is a great idea. Emma says, “when you’re on your own, starting a business from scratch, having someone outside to challenge you and act as a sounding board is invaluable. They’ll encourage you to clarify the thinking behind your decisions, offer their experience of similar situations and potentially steer you away from making mistakes. They can also help you recover more quickly from those mistakes you do make”.

Mentors can teach you missing skills

One of the benefits of having a mentor is the value that comes from knowing someone with business expertise and knowledge that likely differs from your own. You might lack a particular skill set, have reached a phase of growth in your business that’s new to you, or be taking on unfamiliar responsibilities.

As Emma notes: “a mentor will help you develop yourself in ways that suit your growing business. But it’s important to keep an open mind about who the right mentor might be”.

Mentors can introduce you to a whole new network

The right mentor will open doors and expand your reach. Emma says, “having a mentor is another connection, another person in your network that can help you access funding or partnerships or distribution. They open up new ways of reaching whatever it is you need to make your idea a success”.

Mentors will be your cheerleader

Emma finds the most valuable contribution from her mentors is, “the self-belief, basically”. She explains mentors are a fantastic way to beat imposter syndrome. Her conversations with her mentees are often, “you know you can do this, you’re smart, you just explained it exactly, and I wouldn’t fault it”.

You might get advice from someone extraordinary

George encourages being bold. “Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone you feel is ‘out of your league’. You shouldn’t assume that they are too busy or they are just too important to respond to you. Almost every time I’ve plucked up the courage to ask someone a question, they’ve come back with positivity and support. My advice is to be brave and learn to deal with the initial discomfort.”

One final note on finding a mentor

If you’re a solo entrepreneur looking for support, there are lots of places to go to. Emma states, “using your network, you’d be surprised how much people are willing to help. When you say to someone ‘I think you’re awesome’, most people think ‘oh, that’s nice, let me do something for you’. Also, particularly in London, there are so many meetups every day, and they get really specific. Don’t be afraid to go networking and find someone who fits the bill for you”.