“Opinions are like armpits: everyone has them, and they usually stink.”
When asked my opinion, whether in a casual conversation or through my consulting work, I’m quick to acknowledge that I don’t have all the answers, but I’m happy to offer my recommendations. I encourage entrepreneurs to filter my advice through their own experiences. And it’s generally a good idea to get a second opinion.
Recently, I worked with a client who, in addition to working with me, had also found many other programs for consulting services. During the scope of our work, he met with several other mentors and advisors. While I applaud him for being resourceful about finding free services and open to advice, it passed the point of diminishing returns.
As you can imagine, each consultant offered a different perspective. While I focused on his numbers, other advisors focused on sales. Because he was receiving our suggestions separately, he inevitably got some seemingly conflicting advice. Instead of focusing his energy in a few areas, he was spending his time chasing all the different opportunities.
This experience, coupled with a few similar stories, got me thinking about how entrepreneurs can make the most of their relationships with a mentor or advisor. Whether you pay for services or receive them for free, they all come at a cost: your time. If the time you commit helps you solve problems or grow your business, great. But if not, then you’re wasting your most valuable resource.
Before I get into my list of dos and don’ts, I want to clarify the different types of advisory relationships: mentors, consultants and coaches.
Mentors are experienced advisors who donate their time to support up-and-coming entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs seek them out because they have built a business similar to what the entrepreneur is trying to do. A mentor usually makes herself available for calls or cups of coffee on a limited basis, maybe once a month. Mentors provide advice based on their own experience. It’s up to the entrepreneur to apply the advice to their own business.
Consultants get paid for the advice and services they provide. The entrepreneur isn’t always the one to write the check: dozens of programs provide consultants to start-ups and small businesses at no or reduced cost to the entrepreneur. The programs vary in scope; sometimes, consulting is provided as part of a loan package or incubator program. Certainly, you can also hire a consultant independently, with your own money.
Business coaches provide support in a variety of ways, and almost exclusively are funded by the entrepreneur. While the coaches I’ve worked with might disagree, I consider them to be “business therapists.” You can talk with them about your business challenges, and they will help you think through strategies and solutions.
For beginning entrepreneurs, much of this business support is available at little or no cost. And like my client, it’s tempting to drink from the proverbial firehose. Whether you pay for the advice or get it for free, you want to make the most of your (and their) time. I asked a few colleagues their opinion… what’s makes for a successful consulting/mentoring relationship. This is what they said:
1. Rapport matters. If you don’t trust what your advisor brings to the table, then you won’t benefit from their experience. It’s better to move on than waste anyone’s time. Similarly, you must also be able to understand the advice your mentor offers. Everyone communicates differently, and we all hear differently. If you don’t understand your mentor’s style, then you’ll be hard pressed to follow her advice.
2. Be open. Honest communication is vital to a successful working relationship; openly share the realities of your business. If you hold back details (such as your true expenses), then your advisor can’t offer the best advice.
3. Be clear about your goals. Knowing where you want to go helps your advisors frame their ideas in a way that will be most helpful to you.
4. Listen. One of the great things about outside advisors is that they often see things that you don’t. The downside is that they’ll tell you things you don’t necessarily want to hear. I worked with a client whose business model just wasn’t viable. We calculated his maximum possible revenue at $80,000 per year. Given his operating expenses and staffing model, he would never turn a profit. My job was to give him an honest opinion. His job was to listen.
5. Consider new ways of doing things. Presumably, you seek support because business isn’t running as smoothly as you’d like. Like my client above, you need to be willing to consider new ways of doing things. My client had to revise his business model so he could create a financially sustainable business.
6. It’s still your business. Most consulting work limits the scope – either in expertise or time. The entrepreneur should be ready to execute upon the advice on their own and/or invest their own resources into further consulting.
7. Follow through. You’ve been honest and open with your advisor; you’ve listened and heard their advice. You’ve weighed it with your own experience. It’s up to you to follow through on the action plan. More often than not, it’s painstaking work. But ultimately, it will help you succeed.
8. Work hard. There is no silver bullet to business success. Your mentor can offer suggestions and sometimes help you build a road map. You will still need to work hard to achieve your goals.
9. Build an advisory board. If you want to receive support from multiple people at the same time, consider creating an advisory board. This gives your advisors an opportunity to understand all perspectives you’re hearing. It also gives them a networking opportunity that may benefit them. Especially when you receive free support, it’s nice to provide some sort of value to them in appreciation.
10. Be committed. Especially, when getting free consulting services, it’s easy to shrug off meetings or calls, arrive late, or not prepare. Not only is it rude, but you’ll get little from the relationship.
What’s your experience working with or being a business advisor been? Feel free to email me or share in the comments section.