Finding your startup mentor

Tuesday March 3 2015

By Richard Branson

I’ve read many articles, books and a lot of online information about becoming a successful entrepreneur and a self-made multimillionaire.
When it comes down to it, there are a few common points. One is about the importance of seeking out a mentor.
While everyone says that you should have a mentor, no one provides details on how.
What resources should I use to find one? - Erick Lanza

A: Think of a mentor as a startup Sherpa: You may have to climb the entrepreneurial mountain on your own two feet, but your mentor can help make sure that you don’t fall off a cliff or lose your way.
It’s terrific that you’re beginning your career by searching for someone who can help guide you along your journey.
At Virgin, we believe in mentorship so strongly that we launched a programme called Virgin StartUp in Britain, in which we give loans of up to 25,000 pounds to new entrepreneurs. But we don’t just lend the money and run.
We match every borrower with his or her very own mentor, who commits to a minimum of 15 hours of one-on-one time in the first year.
We’re really proud of this system - we recognise how valuable lessons from a peer can be.
But when you haven’t yet met many people in your prospective industry or the local business community, figuring out how to make connections can be daunting.
Here are a few different resources you can use to help you get moving.

Talk to local business leaders you admire
When we were starting up our first Virgin businesses, we would simply find someone who was already running a business in the industry we were hoping to enter and ask him if he’d be willing to spare some time to give us advice. It really was that simple.
Obviously, you shouldn’t pick someone who you see as a direct competitor, but you can try approaching someone who is running a similar business in another location.
Don’t be shy - people are usually flattered by a request for advice. Since they were once in your shoes, they probably had to seek out a mentor at some point themselves.
If you are enterprising, polite and enthusiastic, you’ll likely be surprised at how happy they are to help out!

Connect to the support community for entrepreneurs
You’ve already started on the next route: It’s smart that you’re reading some of the tonnes of books and articles and other information that’s out there about starting a business.
One of the best things about starting up a business now is that a whole support community is readily accessible online to entrepreneurs.
YouTube offers some fantastic advice videos, and Y Combinator has an excellent series of lectures available. The various Ted and Tedx Talks are an incredible resource too - and I must mention our own Mentor Mondays advice videos on virgin.com! The forums for entrepreneurs might be especially helpful.
To be honest, it doesn’t matter if you are talking with someone who survived the startup race or with someone whose business is coming crashing down - learning from others’ mistakes can be even more valuable than learning from someone who has yet to slip up.
So keep browsing online, comment on startup forums and articles and crowdsource when you have questions. If you start speaking up and interacting with other entrepreneurs, you will make contacts and friends, which may eventually lead you to the perfect mentor.

Go to industry events
There are startup events happening in virtually every city around the globe. Check out Eventbrite or MeetUp and search for “startup” or “entrepreneurship,” and an endless list of events will appear that you might attend.
This is a great way to learn about your industry or entrepreneurship from the experts, and you can network with the people you meet. Don’t hesitate to ask for advice from speakers who seem inspiring and knowledgeable - you might find yourself a mentor.
It can be difficult to motivate yourself to get out there and start meeting people, especially when you don’t know a lot about the industry yet, but keep forging ahead. This is all part of the job and the adventure.

Mr Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group. Email: RichardBranson@nytimes.com.

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