Starting a business? First find yourself a mentor

Prior to start-up, even novice entrepreneurs are generally aware that the venture creation process is likely to be demanding, not least because there is uncertainty about the potential outcome.

As a result, individuals often embark on an informal development programme designed to ready themselves for the entrepreneurial role.

James, a fashion entrepreneur, says: ‘It’s always about plotting, planning, thinking way down the road what’s going to happen.
So it’s just preparing for things further down the road than you can actually see.”

New research suggests that individuals deliberately prepare for entrepreneurship after making a decision to pursue the entrepreneurial route, but prior to identifying a particular opportunity.

Entrepreneurs believe that such generic preparation minimises the risks, while increasing the probability of survival and performance.

Preparation includes identifying and establishing relationships with individuals and organisations that might later be useful to the entrepreneur—the most useful and enduring of these relationships is that of the mentoring relationship.

Entrepreneurs typically set out to use mentors as a substitute for their own lack of experience.

The effective mentoring relationship delivers a comprehensive set of empowering benefits to the nascent entrepreneur, often well beyond early expectations of access to knowledge, resources and opportunity.

The protégé in a mentoring relationship may also report greater self-awareness and self-confidence as a result of a mentoring relationship, as well as a more acute sense of their strengths and capabilities.

In this scenario motivation and commitment increase, mistakes are less frequently made and more rapidly corrected, making a more effective entrepreneur and producing a higher probability of successful new-venture creation.

The benefits to the mentor may be more subtle, but no less powerful.

Typically the relationship demands that the mentor consider the world from a new perspective, one that he or she may have forgotten or never have enjoyed.

In this way the mentor may learn or re-learn capabilities at least partly through making explicit knowledge and experiences that have long since become instinctive.

Mentors typically report an enriched reflective experience that operates outside the relationship with the protégé and has extended benefits both personally and professionally.

A mentor-protégé relationship is not easy to establish or to maintain.

In particular informal, unstructured relationships, such as those established by many entrepreneurs in the early stages of business development, may deteriorate quickly under pressure from a poor match between the two parties, incompatible expectations and poor management of the
relationship.

These issues can be resolved when the relationship is planned, formal and structured—either by the entrepreneur or by his or her participation in a mentoring programme such as that offered by the Wits Business School centre for entrepreneurship.—Kerrin Myres, director of the centre for entrepreneurship at Wits Business School. For more information contact [email protected]

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