This post is part two of the two part series on the “etiquette” of one of the most important aspects of running a business: how to work and network with other business owners in order to expand their network in a healthy direction.
One of the most important and focused concepts driven into us in law school was the concept of networking and mentorship, which seems to be, coincidentally, one of the more frequently overlooked areas in the entrepreneur/online small business world is that of networking- not just how it should be done, but the attitude around it.
Looking back, the most important decisions that have influenced, supported, or facilitated each step of my career, including my current profession, have been influenced by mentors in my life. Beginning with my dad, who credits the success of his now (nearly) 40 years as an entrepreneur to the support of a mentor in his early days, the concept of the importance of mentorship has long been instilled in me, yet is not often discussed in the realm of entrepreneurship.
Mentorship may offer a plethora of benefits, but it all boils down to this: We all have something to learn from one another, and a mentor can be one of the best sounding boards available to you as a business owner. Mentorship allows a mentor to teach their mentee, to empower them to take risks, to push them to stretch and grow, and therefore tap into their untapped potential.
In law school, I formed a mentoring relationship with another attorney, which has survived my leaving the traditional firm life, to opening up shop on my own, while he has stayed in house counsel at a large corporation. Potentially the most differing of occupations, but those differences have had no impact on the value of our mentoring relationship today.
Never underestimate the power of having a mentor, or building a network.
On mentorship, specifically: in my opinion, finding a mentor, no matter your occupation, is crucial to your success as a business owner.
Your mentor doesn’t have to be in your field. In fact, a strong argument could be made that it benefits both parties if you are not. However, they should be in a field/business trajectory that parallels your own. For example, if you are in the type of business where you rely on investors (let’s say you’re trying to build a hotel or bed and breakfast). This is a large project that will clearly require significant upfront capital. Of course, finding a mentor in the hospitality realm would be beneficial…but it may be equally as beneficial, at this stage of your business, to seek out a mentor who has a long history of working with/negotiating with investors. A true mentoring relationship does not care about competition (in fact, this concern may show a lack of integrity in the relationship), but finding a mentor in a differing, but somewhat-parallel industry may be ideal for most entrepreneurs.
Of course, you can’t find a mentor without networking, but how do you approach a potential mentoring relationship? There are two ways to approach networking:
1. Never ask for coffee dates or networking calls for no point
- First and foremost, when reaching out to someone for a potential networking relationship, make sure there is a point to your “ask”. It sounds so simple it should go without saying, but make sure that there is a specific purpose behind your ask.
- If you’re asking for a piece of someone’s time, especially for any sort of coffee date/in person event, recognize that the mentor is already sacrificing their time, ie, money for you. Even if they are not in an industry that bills hourly, the time they’re spending with you is time they aren’t spending on client work. That’s not intended to make anyone feel guilty or deter anyone from reaching out to potential mentors (on the alternative, seeking out mentors is crucial); just a reminder that anyone you are asking for that coffee date/networking call is sacrificing something for you.
- If you take any advice from this section, go listen to the Creative Well podcast. The advice Katie Shares is exactly how I built my network when I started my business.
- PS- writing a thank you card/email/even sending a small gift, such as a Starbucks gift card is a great way of recognizing the value of that person’s time. If their time wasn’t valuable, after all, you probably wouldn’t be reaching out to them!
- Which leads me directly to:
2. Never underestimate the power of leveraging your current network.
- Do you have friends or family who may have connections to someone you want to network with? You have nothing to lose by asking them to make a connection
3. Networking has it’s place, but should be viewed more as a relationship-builder than social currency
- I’m going posit the theory that there are two types of “networking”. 1. Just pure network-building, and 2. Those that turn into true industry-relationships.
- Let’s start with the 1st kind (The Pure Network): this is the most common type in my industry. For example, attorneys must maintain a robust network of referrals, because for either ethical/logistical reasons, we can never take every case that comes our way. For example, I cannot or will not ever take a divorce case, because I am not trained in that area of the law. I always send those cases to my referral network, which not only builds up goodwill and my reputation in the community, but is a favor that usually gets returned at some point. In the same vein, if you’re a graphic designer, coach, or another service-provider, it’s wise to build up your own “purely network” network, so that you can refer out cases (or vice-Versace) when they aren’t the best fit with your business/schedule.
- The second kind: in rare occasions, some “networking” can lead to true industry relationships, which are some of the most rare, but fulfilling relationships you can have. I’d like to share two stories with you of “networking relationships” turned “real relationships”. The commonality between both: neither began with me simply asking for their time. Well, one did, but I’ll explain that hiccup later.
- The first story I want to share with you: my business coach, creative mentor, and now dear friend, Katie Selvidge. Katie and I’s story started with the slip-up I just mentioned to you. When I decided to start my business, I was so overwhelmed, so lonely, and just devoid of direction, honestly. That’s probably slightly dramatic, but only slightly. I had looked up to Katie ever since her kickstarter campaign for Cottage Hill, and sent her an email one day basically asking if she would be available for a 15 minute call. I knew when I pressed send it was a bit gouache on my part. Being the graceful person that she is, she kindly said that she wasn’t available for coffee chats, but that she was starting up a coaching program. I invested in her coaching, and over time, she became more than a coach, she became a dear friend.
- Case study 2: Kevinn Matthews. Kevin has become a mentor that at this point, I just refer to as my “big brother”. Long story short, Kevinn is a mentoring guru (he literally teaches about it in the law school), and was my first corporate “boss” in my oil and gas days. I spent a full summer learning not just law from him, but the art of network. Over the years he has become more of family than a mentor, and was the first in my hospital room when I broke my back in January.
The key to both stories? Other than the fact that there are a myriad of types of mentors, most mentoring relationships start with an investment in that person, such as working with/for them.
The point: never overlook the potential for any networking attempt to have real, relationship- building potential.
4. Never turn down the opportunity to be a mentor, or mentee
- Finally, it’s important to recognize that mentoring relationships aren’t just important for the mentee, but also for the mentor. And even if you think you don’t have time for a mentee, it’s important to always be open to the option. Again, we all have something to learn from one another.
- However, when working with someone as a mentor, be discerning about who you invest your time in. You should never try to re-create another “mini me” out of your mentee, and if they decide to do things a bit different than you, that’s not any sort of indication that there’s anything wrong with the mentoring relationship.
- Instead, your role as a mentor for another business owner (or person in business in general), is to help stretch your mentee’s mind into tackling issues from a different angle, or thinking of things from a different perspective. Stretch them to help them grow into further potential within themselves.
The point being? Never stop being a student. Find others who will continually push you to learn, grow, change; correct you when needed. Everyone needs a mentor, and if you have the opportunity to be another person’s mentor, don’t overlook the opportunity- after all, as iron sharpens iron, you never know how much of an impact the relationship can have on you as well.