People are not lying when they say that building a new business is a rollercoaster. From day one you’re dealing with levels of stress you didn’t know existed and facing potential failure at every turn, making every decision business-critical. It’s a daily grind. A major lifestyle sacrifice. Your personal life and health suffer in the process.
Despite all of this, I do not feel that simply working on a start up qualifies you to mentor them.
Along with Ben McGrath, I’ve been lucky enough to co-found a company that hasn’t failed in the first few years, unlike the majority of tech start ups. I have seen it grow step-by-step from just me co-sharing a desk in a pokey office working 36 hours a day, into a business that spans 6 markets, 30+ staff and a client list including Estée Lauder, eBay, ASOS, Samsung and more.
But I am not claiming to be an expert
While I am proud of what we have achieved so far, I’m sure I’ve still got many more lessons to learn on this entrepreneurial road. So its with a growing sense of frustration I watch people self-define themselves as an entrepreneur, when they have never experienced what it’s really like to start a business from scratch.
I understand that entrepreneurial workshops and books are a big business, but the title should be reserved for true visionaries. The Elon Musks, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerbergs of the world. Not someone who claims their name is on the VIP list when actually they weren’t invited to the party. Becoming an entrepreneur is not about faking it until you make it.
It feels to me like the so-called mentors, disingenuous startup advisors and pseudo entrepreneurs are cheating the guys who have actually been in the trenches – and charging a premium for their empty advice. Just as one night spent at a networking event doesn’t grant you have a ticket to the ecosystem, being a founding shareholder does not make you founder of a business.
As my business partner Ben says: “It’s disconcerting to be approached by would-be entrepreneurs taking credit for others work, rather than doing the hard-graft and building credibility themselves. Using other success as their success to gain other people’s trust is a mis-representation of the truth.”
When I started out I was a bit naïve, so I understand that when you are eager for an opportunity it’s all too easy to get swept up with the way someone sells themselves. Especially when from all appearances they seem to know what they’re talking about.
Unfortunately reaching out to entrepreneur mentors or shareholders is an unavoidable part of the start up process for many. For those people, I have this advice.
1. Do your due diligence
They might be Richard Branson on paper but Christoper Skase in reality. Speak to their references, check and double check their reputation in the market and don’t be afraid to ask questions. It’s your reputation on the line after all.
You might feel like you’ve got to sell your business idea to them but really they’ve got to make you feel confident that they are the right person to support you and your business. They may be older and seem wiser than you. They may claim to be an accomplished business person with a lot of wisdom to share, but when it comes down to it, you hire them and you want to work with people you can trust.
2. Think of it like hiring an employee
Employees need to be reliable, a good cultural fit, share your vision and offer the business something besides ego. They should contribute to driving the company progressively forward – and the same practice applies to finding a shareholder or mentor. An important lesson for any founder of a start up to learn.
3. But don’t take the easy route
While it’s important to be aligned on the direction and values of your business, a yes-man will add no value to your enterprise. Instead consider choosing someone who has a different way of thinking, new methods of problem solving and can constructively challenge you.
Ultimately the person investing the most into the business personally, and often financially, is you. Be a sponge, endeavour to learn everything but trust your gut when it comes to making the right call for your business.
Aaron Brooks is the co-founder of influencer marketing platform, Vamp.