Keeping two feet on the ground: Exploring the mentor – mentee relationship

Having recently been crowned Great British Entrepreneur of the Year for 2019 alongside her husband, Alan, Grenade co-founder Juliet Barratt reflects on her decade as an entrepreneur, how valuable a mentor can be in the early days and how she is now turning her attention to helping a new generation of Great British entrepreneurs.

Starting your own business can leave you feeling a bit like Alice in Wonderland falling down the rabbit hole; excited, confused, overwhelmed! It’s a swift departure from the stability and security of being somebody else’s employee on someone else’s payroll. As you continue to build the business, day whizz by filled with innumerable tasks and unfamiliar pressures, and it’s difficult to know quite how things will work out; will you land on your feet after this feeling of freefall?

A mentor can be the parachute that slows you down, that helps you take the reigns and control the landing. It’s a role that can guide you through the ups and downs of starting and growing a business.

When I first started Grenade with my husband Alan, there were so many facets to creating our own sports nutrition business that we’d never considered before – and naturally had no experience in. I will never forget the first time barcodes were mentioned. The simple comment “you need to get a barcode” was met with pure shock from me and a big “how’?!”. It was an eye-opener, to say the least.

The benefits of a mentor can be felt no matter what industry or stage of business you’re in. However, if you’re looking for a mentor, it’s important to seek advice and support from someone who is well-versed in the specific challenges you are facing, so they be of practical as well as strategic help.

For example, a digital finance app might seek a mentor with knowledge of FCA regulation and getting listed in Apple’s App Store. Meanwhile, a retail business, such as Grenade, might need someone who has experience in product registration, trademarks and let’s not forget – barcodes. If you’re selling a product then someone who understands how to get your product stocked by big retailers could be an invaluable resource.

A mentor who has ‘been there and done that’ in your industry or in a similar market can save you a lot of time, effectively turbo-charging your business growth by fast-tracking tasks that may seem daunting -overwhelming even, and by steering you in the right direction when things gather pace.

Beyond the practical advice, a mentor can help you think big, can open doors and shape the direction of the business’ growth. Sometimes a mentor can offer advice that transcends the tasks of the here and now, providing a small kernel of wisdom that will stick with you forever.

I experienced this first-hand when an experienced business leader shared his approach to hiring new staff. Among small business and start-ups, there is often a reluctance to delegate. Hiring your very first team member is no easy decision to make, while outsourcing a business function for the first time can be daunting. This was certainly the case for Alan and I when we were starting out. Until a mentor I respected said to me “when you are doing the same thing over and over again, get someone else to do it. This will free up your time for other tasks.”

Suddenly, knowing when to hire someone new or take on an agency became an obvious decision and I have never stopped sticking by this rule. I credit this simple advice, at least in part, with Grenade’s growth. Reclaiming some of your time by delegating a task allows you focus on the next frontier or tackle a new challenge.

Ten years down the line, I have now moved into a mentoring role myself.

Before opening yourself up to mentoring, it’s important to consider whether this is the right step for you. Mentoring requires empathy, patience and openness.

Be honest with yourself and evaluate what expertise you can bring and how you can add to the business. Mentors should ask any potential mentees what they’re looking to get out of the experience and understand where they’d like help to reach their goals. In turn, it’s essential the mentor considers whether or not they can truly offer this. It’s important to manage these expectations from the start on both sides.

Don’t be afraid to turn down roles that are outside your remit, with the understanding that you can’t offer the support and experience the business needs. I have been asked to mentor business leaders in the tech or ecommerce space, but turned it down as the expertise they could really benefit from was more technical than I could offer.

Another expectation to set is around the time you can offer. Walking into mentoring planning only to offer a monthly conversation on the phone is not realistic for most businesses. It’s difficult to move the dial with this much interaction. At the beginning, agree on the method of communication, the length of the commitment and the frequency of scheduled– and be open to tailoring this as the business’ needs require.

The final consideration is passion. While it’s been said that business is business, in the start-up world, the reality is far from this. In my experience, the best businesses come out of a real passion where the founder has spotted a genuine need or opportunity. I’ve mentored businesswomen who have been inspired by experiences of parenting to develop toys, eco-friendly clothing and products- all of which solved problems for both them and their kids. These entrepreneurs had seen first-hand the gap in the market for these products, and how they can fit into our lives, so hold unrivalled passion for their product or service.

Founders are incredibly invested in their own businesses. While you don’t have to match this measure exactly, if you’re not mentoring in an area of industry you’re interested in, it will start to show and mentoring will become a chore.

Over the last ten years of my entrepreneurial experience, I have been both a mentor and a mentee. When done right, it’s an experience I would recommend. The benefits for a mentee are clear, and the pride you feel as a mentor while watching your mentee flourish is fulfilling.