Mentors are highly valued by entrepreneurs. With a track record of commercial success, they're well placed to pass on vital skills. Director met three businesspeople and their mentors to ask why two brains are better than one
The mentee Jenny Oliver, Solum Environmental, ecological consultancy
The mentor Tariq Marfani, Tarameen, textiles importer
The matchmaker The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE), which fosters entrepreneurship globally through mentoring, networking and education
Every year the protected species legislation increases, so in order to get any planning permission in the UK you have to prove to the planning authority that you have checked your site for protected species, and where you've found them, you've mitigated for them. You need an ecologist on the project team. We felt there was a gap in the market for a professional services consultancy that deals in ecology and soils.
With mentoring you have access to some serious management skills. It's been like having a fantastically experienced business manager on our team. Tariq is astonishingly available, given how busy he is. He approaches the situation as though we are equals. The other benefit is access to his contacts book. We're good at marketing, but Tariq picks up the phone to somebody and that's it.
We meet regularly and work out what we'll focus on beforehand. I ask him specific questions, which works well. The more businesses you speak to, and the more perspectives you get, the better you become. I do mentoring at a low level for mums who are starting up. I find that sitting down and looking at their challenges helps me. I'd like to think Tariq gets something from it.
We were planning big, but the recession has changed our perspective. We're concentrating on organic growth now. We haven't borrowed a penny from the bank; we want to finance our growth from profit-it will be more sustainable. Last year our turnover was 40 per cent higher than our target. Right now we're looking at an order book that's really exciting.
I didn't have an official mentor, but I had great guidance and advice from people whose counsel I still seek. As your business grows you get very involved in a larger corporate structure and become more inward-focused. It's a breath of fresh air speaking to somebody with a smaller-business perspective.
You remember how little you knew, how much you've changed. I think the right kind of mentor is one who doesn't think he'll necessarily be the best. A mentor who thinks he knows all the answers straight off will be rubbish. I'm a great believer that one mentor isn't enough. You can give so much advice but you do need to point them in the direction of different skills than yours.
You've got to remember that you have two ears and one mouth—listen twice as much as you speak. If you have to explain to a mentee exactly what to do, I don't think that the relationship is working.
I saw Jenny recently and it was fantastic to see how well her business has turned around—so many of the issues she had aren't there anymore. I'm very involved in the eco sector as well. I think it's important for the industry not to be hair shirt-wearing people with sandals. There's no question of that with Jenny. She's pragmatic, realistic and absolutely focused.
The mentee Sophie Croydon, rentyourrocks.com, jewellery hire firm
The mentor Jamie Murray Wells, glassesdirect.com, spectacles retailer
The matchmaker The Times mentoring scheme
I came back from studying in the US to take over our 175-year-old family jewellers when the market turned. Rentyourrocks.com met a need for a traditional business to adapt. It's an online, dynamic, easy rental situation. It allows people to adorn themselves with luxury but there's no investment. It's eco-chic—you use and return.
I've had some great direction from Jamie. He's five years down the line from where I am. He's steered me away from all of those random pathways I might have taken. We're going through our first investment round (£500,000 to leverage the buzz and brand we've created) and he's done six or seven himself so he's taken me down a more direct route.
I'd say do your homework on each other. The first thing I did was Google Jamie. I knew that he was a lot busier than me; his time was in demand. He'd done as much if not more homework on me. From the second we met we went at 100mph rather than wasting really valuable time. We got a big picture early on and then broke down the details.
Chemistry is really important. If you get on then the production that comes out is so much stronger. I'd come out of meetings and go, "what just happened?" It's intimidating but it will work if you want to do it. I've been lucky to have Jamie-my learning curve has been incredible.
Jamie Murray Wells
I benefited from a selection of mentors, I didn't have just one, which is why I do things like mentor Sophie. I feel like I've got a lot to give back. I get a sense that I'm extending the ladder that I climbed to other young people.
Gone are the days of the old-style mentors who are 50 years ahead of the curve. Things move fast, so it really benefits [the mentee] to have someone just a step ahead feeding back what they're doing, rather than someone who started their business 50 years ago and is close to retiring.
You don't have to have a deep technical knowledge of what they're doing-it's about knowing what you know and knowing what you don't know. Set clear goals each time you meet, and meet about once a month. A good mentor lets the mentee make their own decisions and holds them accountable. Ultimately, it's their business and you mustn't be tempted to become an executive in it.
Sophie is taking an industry, just like I did with glasses, and turning it on its head. I love to think about blowing up old business models and replacing them with new ones. That's what she's doing. She knows a lot about the industry, she's smart and she's presentable to investors.
Sophie's got a very interesting business in the making. It's got a long way to go but she has a good chance of making high-end jewellery rental something that's on everyone's minds when they receive an invitation.
The mentee Kate Starkey, katestarkeycouture.com, tailor
The mentor Chantal Coady, Rococo, chocolate retailer
The matchmaker FreshIdeas, a networking community for female entrepreneurs and corporate women
No one had been servicing the tailoring needs of businesswomen. I did my research and women who had been fitted on Savile Row were frustrated with the service.
My clients have no time, they earn a lot, they've got top-level clients and they need to look and feel fabulous. I started off with bespoke shirts. We also do bespoke shift dresses, coats, and suits. We're extending into business luggage and accessories and I'm thinking along the lines of a Savile Row boutique—everything that a working woman needs. I also do uniforms for corporate organisations-a lot of the large banks, for example. It's an untapped market.
I was matched with Chantal last December. It's been invaluable. Chantal is well placed because she's a niche retail business as well. She's been doing it for 26 years. I'll download the issues I'm having and she'll say what's important and what's not. She puts everything in perspective. I make decisions by myself but Chantal double-checks me. She's been incredible with the number of ideas she's suggested and thinking out of the box.
Being proactive is key. Think for yourself and then put it to your mentor. They're delighted to help but don't sit around waiting for your mentor to call-they're busy people. Write down what you're going to do before the next meeting. The onus is on you to make the first move.
Everyone who's successful in their field has a responsibility to share that in some way, whether it's doing charitable things or mentoring or both. I don't think you can put yourself in an ivory tower and say, "I'm too busy." I've been in business for a long time so I've learnt lots of lessons, probably the hard way. Not that I'm telling Kate what to do, but I hope I'm able to guide her, and call her to account, because when you're a small business you don't tend to have someone asking you searching questions.
She had a wish list. I've talked her through the implications of getting an investor. It's a critical thing in business-if you're going to do it, what you're going to get for it. Perhaps explore some other possibilities.
There needs to be a certain amount of rigour; it sounds formal but write down exactly what you're going to talk about and then have an action plan, otherwise it gets too woolly.
There's a huge chasm between the vision and getting it to run. Kate's at that critical moment—being quite small but having an ambitious idea of what she wants to do. I think potentially she could do a Paul Smith for women-really classic tailoring with some twists to make it her own quirky brand. I think that sort of thing has a huge appeal, particularly if you're a lawyer or a banker. You have to fit into a certain pattern but you don't want to be just another suit.