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How to develop and use mentors to grow your company

When you start a company, it’s natural to think you can do it all yourself.

That’s because, in the very beginning, you do indeed do it all yourself – all the production, all the marketing, all the accounting. It feels normal.

But there comes a point where you have to focus on your own strengths, those that add the most value to your enterprise.

And you have to let the other tasks go.

This is where it pays to have mentors, people who can guide you and answer questions.

Today, I want to share my experience about how to choose and use mentors.

Finding mentors

1. Take advantage of existing resources

There are all sorts of mentoring resources available.

Two have been very useful to us: TEC Canada, which links business leaders in a peer group format so they can share knowledge, and Invest Ottawa, which makes experts available to growing businesses. Each city or region will have its own similar resources.

I stumbled onto TEC because our CTO was friends with Pascal St-Jean, the chair of  the local TEC group.

I had never had a mentor before, and I was skeptical of the whole concept. After all, no one knew my business as well as I did, right? So how could anyone help?

But within five minutes of meeting with the local TEC group leader, I realized this guy knew exactly what I was struggling with. Not only that, but he had ideas for solutions to my problems.

I couldn’t believe that I had found a person who had all this knowledge – knowledge that was applicable to me, even though he did not know all the intricacies of my business.

But the reality is that every company, whether it’s a plumbing company or a marketing company, faces the same problems: how to grow, how to build a culture, how to deal with difficult employees, how to get out of the weeds and see the big picture. And every company owner needs to learn how to become a leader.

Once I saw what mentoring could do, I became a fan.

2. Tap into your own networks

Knowing how powerful mentoring could be, we decided to take things one step further by tapping into our networks to create what we call our Board of Advisors. It’s a group of two men and two women who play an official mentorship role at Knak.

We want to draw on their experience to help us steer clear of avoidable problems, gain insights that would otherwise take us a long time to acquire, and leverage their ideas and their networks to help us grow.

In creating the board, we made a conscious decision to look for the best people in our own networks ( people we’d worked with before) who were well-positioned to help us, and who were available and willing to take on the responsibility.

In other words, we used our personal connections to find top-notch advisors with a diverse range of backgrounds relevant to our business. Their skills are complementary, and the board members are a major asset to us, not only because of their knowledge and connections, but also because of the credibility they bring to us. Having these solid people as our advisors shows how solid we are.

We give each board member a letter of engagement that spells out what we expect of them.

Be mindful that if you get official mentors in this way, you will need to understand that they will expect to get something out of the deal. That means you will likely need to compensate them in some way. 

Using mentors

1. Decide who can call on whom

Once you have mentors available, it’s wise to formalize how they will be used.

For example, we try to use our Board of Advisors strategically, usually for big-picture issues. For that reason, we have decided that members of our leadership team are the ones who talk to them.

If we have an employee who lacks experience in a specific area, we will pair them with a mentor or expert who can help. For example, we had a SaaS start-up expert who needed some assistance with finance models. We matched that person up with our controller.

2. Use outside mentors to solve internal issues

One of the big advantages of a group like TEC is that its members are business leaders from outside my own firm. 

This has been particularly valuable when my questions have involved my own leadership team. In other words, if I have questions about my team – questions I can’t turn to them about, like should such and such a thing be happening with my dev team, or am I getting the performance I need out of a certain team – the TEC group of outside mentor/peers provides neutral third-party advice.

3. Use mentors to fill holes in your company skill set

Invest Ottawa’s experts have been invaluable in helping us answer questions in areas where we don’t have expertise. We have used their experts as mentors in human resources, customer success and finance, for example. It’s literally as easy as picking up the phone and asking a question.

For example, for a long time we did not have a staff member dedicated to handling human resources. When an HR issue would come up, and it was something we hadn’t dealt with before, we would often waste a ton of time trying to figure out what to do or where to look.

Now, we just call our HR expert at Invest Ottawa and we have the answer in 15 minutes.

Another example: We hired a new financial controller whose background was in taxation, not SaaS (software as a service) companies. He was able to reach out to mentors and experts who could help him understand our sector.

4. Use mentors to save time

At this point, Knak is a bootstrapped company with no outside funding. We realize we may need to seek outside money, but we don’t know how to go about doing that. Nor do we know at what point we might need to look for funds, or where we might go to look.

Without people to turn to, we could waste months looking for answers to those questions.

Instead, we can turn to our Board of Advisors. They’ve been there; they know.

5. Use mentors to provide perspective

It’s very useful to have access to people who can look at your problems with fresh eyes.

When I first joined TEC, I got Pascal St-Jean as my mentor. (He now sits on our Board of Advisors).

I was the only person on our leadership team at the time, and Pascal quickly saw that I was spending a ton of time doing things like booking meetings – administrative matters that kept me from focussing on the things I needed to do.

“You need an executive assistant,” he told me.

I had never thought about getting an assistant. In fact I didn’t think I deserved one. But Pascal was able to give an outside perspective, and with that came the confidence that I needed to make the hire.

6. Use your mentors, period

A mentor is no use if you don’t take advantage of their knowledge. So once you have mentors, make sure to tap into their expertise regularly.

And to sharpen their ability to help you, keep them up to date about your company’s affairs and challenges.

There was a time when I felt needed to know every detail about running my company.

Honestly, it was a burden – because every time an issue came up, I felt the need to spend time researching it.

Now, when a question comes up and I don’t know the answer, my first instinct is to ask: Who would? And to reach out and talk to them.

Having access to this expertise has been a huge factor in our growth.

Pierce Ujjainwalla has years of experience as a CEO, entrepreneur, and marketing leader. He has lived in the marketing trenches at companies like IBM, SAP, NVIDIA, and Marketo, and he launched Knak in 2015 as a platform designed to help Marketers simplify email creation. Visit his personal blog, Modern Marketer, for more of the insight he’s gained as founder and CEO of Knak.

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