A Business Case for Formal Mentoring

In February of 2001, I had the opportunity to become CEO of a startup that promised to challenge me in new and different ways. While the worst of the economy had not yet hit, it certainly was a rough time to start a business. But we couldn’t wait. The idea behind our business, Confoti, was to leverage the convergence of the digital photography and social expression markets, allowing people to personalize confetti, cards, and party goods with their own photos. The explosion of digital photography was not going to be dictated by a recession, and neither was I.

At the time, I was an experienced entrepreneur, having founded a design consultancy in 1993 and driven its annual revenue to more than $1 million. While that business’s primary focus was marketing and services, I was additionally responsible at Confoti for leading technology, manufacturing, operations, and the sale of products to both consumer and business channels. I was riding herd over the intricacies of inventory management and attending to the crucial job of raising financing.

I went in search of something in the way of an “executive tune-up” to better prepare me and the company for the new types of challenges Confoti would present, and I found myself at the doorstep of Menttium, a company that runs national mentoring programs. After a rigorous interview process, I was accepted and decided to personally invest $4,800 to enroll. I was paired with an experienced mentor who would, under our contract, provide me with support and guidance.

This was new territory for me. Indeed, like so many entrepreneurs, I had always prided myself on my ability to be independent and self-confident, to create something out of nothing by dint of hard work, dedication and, yes, a whiff of stubbornness.

Going Formal

What sent me, essentially a non-believer, down the path of seeking a so-called “mentor” was advice from the president of a unit of Levi Strauss & Co., whom I had met at a dinner for executive women shortly after I started my Sunnyvale, California-based company. She suggested that while my skills and experience were up to the challenge, I might benefit from a mentoring relationship in which I would have someone to act as a sounding board.

Enter Menttium, which in a formal year-long program, provides a series of eight half-day seminars on subjects regarding leadership skills, as well as its showpiece offering: an introduction to an individual who serves as one’s “mentor” for the year. In my case, I was paired with Alain Harrus, a partner in a venture capital firm in Menlo Park, California.

In the past year, I’ve met monthly with Alain, and we’ve spoken and emailed several times a month. The upshot has been that I now have an astute sounding board for discussing issues regarding Confoti. More importantly, I now have an altered perspective about what mentoring can do for me as an entrepreneur. In short, I’ve become an advocate of the concept of seeking help in a formal way from someone appointed to engage in the task.

Formal Means Business

In many respects, the fact that I paid for a mentoring program has allowed me to view mentoring in a new light. The program’s value-add is that of a rigorous screening process that would well match me to a mentor. I wouldn’t be imposing on this person but rather securing what I was owed under a contract. A fee-based arrangement, moreover, could mitigate the ups and downs inherent to informal mentoring relationships, where building rapport is paramount and results are far from certain.

Not that there are guarantees in formal settings either, of course. Indeed, when I first joined Menttium, the onus was on me to fill out a rigorous document, detailing why I was seeking a formal mentor and what I hoped to gain from the association.

In my case, I was looking for four key elements. I wanted a frank assessment of my strengths and areas for improvement. I asked for a male mentor, as I hoped to get insight into the “locker room” and a style of deal-making that was inherently unknown to me given my gender. I counted on the mentor to give advice as an insider who had seen more and done more. Finally, as a new parent – my daughter was then nine months old – I wanted perspective from someone who was able to balance professional demands with an active family life.

I hit a home run with my mentor with whom I have developed a rapport that mirrors the best of what occurs in mentoring relationships that evolve informally. At a fundamental level, he has been a reliable sounding board for my plans and strategies on how to handle some of the challenges typically raised during the kind of high growth and fundraising phase Confoti has been through this year.

Beyond the company advice, there have been revelations on a personal level. At one point, I expressed concern that my personal profile would get in the way of my ability to raise money. I’m a woman, I’m petite, and I have an energy level that belies my size. It was my mentor who reminded me that my energy and drive wouldn’t be a detriment; indeed, that if I didn’t have these qualities, it wouldn’t be likely that Confoti would be where it was.

What Endures

In the year that we have been together, mentoring has played a role in shaping my attitude about leading an entrepreneurial business, and more generally, about what it means to seek out advice and assistance. Before this program, I was loath to directly ask for help. Through the insight I’ve gained from working with my mentor, I’ve learned to ask explicitly for what I need.

Recently, for example, in leading the effort to secure our first round of outside financing, a crisis was created when our two closing investors dropped out in the eleventh hour for personal economic reasons. Immediately, I contacted the other investors. In an email entitled, “HELP,” rather than ask our current investors for additional money, I instead made an appeal for access to their personal networks. When one of our investors met the challenge, I laid out my dilemma to two female veteran executives to whom he introduced me. After a grilling about the business, each pulled out her Palm Pilot and gave me a roster of possible investor candidates, strategic business contacts, and a round of some of the most supportive informal mentoring I have ever experienced.

Confoti ultimately oversubscribed our round – a feat I was told would be impossible to achieve in this climate. I learned that it is my job as an entrepreneurial leader to seek help when I need it, and that people in a position to help are often eager to do so. Moreover, my direct experience with Confoti is that a leader with a mentor creates an environment of mentorship – a team characteristic at Confoti that has allowed us to thrive in these difficult times. I credit my formal mentoring experience for opening my perspective and for these lessons learned.

Tips for Proceeding Formally

I am now an advocate of both formal and informal mentoring. For me, it took the formal variety to open me up to the process of seeking advice and help quite freely, an attitude I am convinced is essential to any startup in this economy.

To make the best of a formal relationship, entrepreneurs must first be clear about what they want from such associations. That lengthy document I was asked to fill out when I got started with my mentoring program proved to be a big help in this regard.

Being clear about one’s needs also helps when it comes to the second necessity, that the entrepreneur be paired with a person whose skills and experience are a good match.

Once the pairing takes place, an entrepreneur must then be proactive about pursuing the relationship. Menttium, for one, makes it clear that the mentors – who volunteer their time – aren’t expected to take the initiative.

Formal mentoring is expensive and time-consuming. Thus, if an entrepreneur isn’t willing to work at developing the relationship, it could become akin to the gym membership or the summer home that one feels guilty about not using.

With that hurdle overcome, though, a formal mentoring relationship can pay enormous dividends, as it has for me, both in providing tangible help with concrete company-building challenges and the insight that helps an entrepreneur mature a skill set and experience.

More like this: Entrepreneurial Life

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