Peter Boyes analyses two client-mentor relationships to learn why they work so successfully.
Demand from SMEs is high according to Business Mentors New Zealand (BMNZ), the nation’s only not-for-profit mentoring organisation, and it’s not just start ups and fledging companies seeking help. Many older companies are seeking help for the first time and this is not just a sign of a chilly economic climate. Increasingly businesspeople understand the value of having someone to talk to, outside of family and friends, who is ready and able to take an interest in what they do.
One very special aspect about BMNZ is that it gives its clients, for a nominal registration fee of $100, access to expertise that they simply couldn’t buy. In many cases the mentors, successful, experienced business experts, are just not for hire. They volunteer their time and services. Others, such as me, provide services for a fee, but at a rate most SMEs wouldn’t be able to afford. We donate those services to BMNZ as our way of putting something back into the community. Which is why many big businesses support the organisation. It’s their way of demonstrating corporate and social responsibility.
Mentoring, over time, often develops into a unique relationship, which enhances the professional lives of both mentor and client. Through one mentoring assignment I discovered a lot about heating innovations; in another a whole new world of retail fashion jewellery opened up. I’ve met some fascinating, dedicated, inspiring businesspeople. In return, I hope the clients were able to improve their marketing communications, grow their business and ultimately their sales.
It is important to understand what you can get from a mentoring relationship though. Some clients think that you are going to do it all for them. It doesn’t work like that. We might point a client in the right direction but they have to walk the walk themselves.
Kathryn Reid of Botany Downs knew what she wanted from her business when she set up Website Words, a specialist service designed to rewrite business websites. She also knew what she wanted from her business mentor.
Kathryn already had a grounding in the business essentials. “My background is in marketing and communications,” she explains. “I have worked in marketing – both on the client and agency side as well as in corporate communications. When I set up my own business to specialise in rewriting business websites, the key skill I brought to bear was my ability to get inside my clients’ heads rapidly, to understand their USP and what makes them special and different. When you are inside a business you tend to overcomplicate it and I have the ability of being able to distil it right down to the simple facts.”
One of the first things Kathryn did was write a business plan for Website Words.
“It was while doing the business plan that I realised there was a lot of stuff I just didn’t know. There were lots of different questions that arose and I really wanted to talk to someone about what they did at this stage of their business.
“It’s always been pretty obvious to me that if someone has already done it, and tells you how, then it speeds up the process for you and reduces your chances of failure.”
The quality of the relationship with her mentor was vital to Kathryn. She explains: “For me, the key to mentoring is not just the depth of the mentor’s knowledge – it is important to have the right match of personality. My first mentor was a really nice chap but I knew it just wasn’t going to be the ideal fit for me. We discussed it and both agreed that we were too dissimilar. It is hard to have that conversation but I reminded myself to think as a business owner with a specific purpose. It’s not personal. If we hadn’t had this hard conversation then I wouldn’t have met Richard who became my mentor. I’m proud at how I maintained the courage to stay true to my goal and how we both walked away from the meeting still feeling like valid individuals.
“I needed someone who could challenge me now with quick hard answers. My mentor also needed to be able to manage my expectations. I wanted everything yesterday. I needed someone to help me shut up and slow down. Anita, the local agent, came back and I explained with a specific list of the qualities I was looking for. Anita thought about it and sent me Richard. When I sat down with him I thought “yes” immediately and it has been brilliant ever since.”
Kathryn and Richard meet at Sylvia Park Shopping Mall, part way between their two locations on Sunday once a fortnight and discuss her business over banana milk-shakes. She says he makes her accountable.
“He helps me to see what I need to do. I had difficulty at first with reconciling in my own head my expenses and charging an appropriate fee. It is hard to put a price on the value of your service. He helped me see that I really have a big value add.
“I did wonder if he sometimes felt like I was wasting his time, since my company is small in the grand corporate world, but he reminded me that every business starts here and that it’s an important stage to honour. His unbiased perspective is one of the main reasons why I am truly grateful for his support.’
In between the dogs, cows, vegetable garden, boating, fishing and the view from her Hunua lifestyle property, Fiona Ritchie runs Just Gorgeous, a designer jewellery business on the threshold of national, and potentially, international, success. She credits much of her achievement to working with business mentors.
Fiona’s designs are at the high end of the souvenir business. This year she has been discovered by prestigious Auckland department store, Smith and Caughey, which is stocking her Kiwiana range for the Rugby World Cup.
“In late 2007 I finished a marketing strategy manager’s role for Auckland City Council and started the business,” says Fiona. “I knew nothing about retail but I started sourcing jewellery products and retailing them at markets. My next step was to manufacture my own designs in China. The recession had made this more accessible in that the minimum order quantities were reduced. I learned about importing directly, but as I had been a mentor myself in Australia, I knew how important it is to understand that you can’t know everything.
“I got my first mentor in 2009. He helped me when I had an issue with the quality of production from China. He had experience of Chinese manufacture and helped me realise the importance of very detailed specifications as well as how to handle it culturally when things go wrong. I had ordered 500 items for Christmas trade and 360 of them arrived faulty. It was time consuming to negotiate the refund; I was unlikely to recover the freight cost and it would take another 40 days to get replacement stock. It was October by then, and I would have missed the boat with many Kiwiana range customers who were ex-pats sending the jewellery overseas for Christmas.
“My mentor helped me look at other sources of supply. He was very keen on Vietnam where he had done a lot of business. He was a really solid knowledgeable person, and while not experienced with jewellery, in the end the product was irrelevant as the manufacturing issues were generic.”
Later, when Fiona moved to Hunua, it was too far to keep in touch with her Orewa-based mentor. Business slowed with the recession. Fiona looked at various options, and last year trialled wholesaling. Again she turned to Business Mentors for support.
“I was hesitant about wholesale because the quantities are so much bigger and it’s so much riskier.
“The first mentor I was sent this time wasn’t right for me. I knew enough about the process to get in touch with BMNZ again and tell them we didn’t fit. It is very important to be as specific as you can about what sort of help you are looking for, as it helps the agent find the right person.
“I had a very big trade show coming up and needed someone who could help me with developing a sales programme. They sent me Alison who is experienced in the UK FMCG industry including managing sales teams. She is very structured, analytical and gives me practical advice about communications and dealing with customer objections.
“I now have a more structured sales approach. I’ve started support advertising in Air New Zealand’s Koru in-flight magazine, fashion magazines and other media. I hope to export my Retro Collection to Australia next and then possibly further to the northern hemisphere.”