How to find a mentor — and more importantly, ask for help

If you read my article last week, you understand the importance of having a mentor.

Now the question is, how do you find one?

First, it’s important to note that most mentors don’t walk around with a T-shirt that says “mentor” — though that certainly would make it much easier to find one. Successful founders don’t always advertise their previous success or experience until you get to know them a little better. And they certainly won’t share their war stories until you’ve established a relationship — and of course, trust.

A great way to find a mentor is to go where they are — either join a group that helps you find and develop a mentor or mentor team, or do the work by networking with folks who you think are candidates to mentor your startup. You can leverage LinkedIn to build your network and ask for warm intros via mutual connections. Another option is to cold call a successful founder to ask for help.

You’ll find that mentors will generally come in two types: still running a business (busy), or exited (still busy, organizing their lives and having fun). Keep these backgrounds in mind as you talk to them. Just because they are successful doesn’t mean they are any less busy than you are. In fact, their business could be a key to their success.

Also consider that mentors are not always folks who have a past success (or failure) story. There are plenty of networking events in Charlotte to help you connect with founder peers who are hustling like you are. One could almost make it a full-time job attending networking events, which is evidence of great progress for our city around the startup ecosystem.

Not networking yet? Come on now — get out and get to it! StartCharlotte or INCLT events are great places to explore networking events. You can also find specific events around your industry (Building a fintech startup? Check out the events at QC Fintech) or at your coworking space.

Once you have a potential mentor in mind, consider that if you never ask, the answer is always a “no.” So pick your targets, and pick up the phone (along with email, but always use a phone). Lunch is an easy option (you’re buying, by the way). Start the conversation with something like, “I’ve admired your journey, and I would like to ask you a few details about it, and perhaps gain some advice.”

Be prepared. You’re running the show. Flattery normally works as an opener, but make sure it’s genuine by learning something about that person’s success.

Share details about your journey/company. Founders are problem solvers, so they might jump in to help if they see an issue that’s interesting to them. Share a few issues, and you might observe their problem-solving nature kick in even before you get around to asking for help.

Remember, the folks you’re talking to are very busy, so don’t be surprised if your meeting gets pushed or is scheduled far out. Make it easy for them: You pick the place close to them. You send the meeting invite, and make sure you confirm the day before.

You won’t always get a yes when you ask for help, but that’s OK. It’s a bit like fundraising (but easier!) in that you will get more no’s than yes’s. With this in mind, remember to make the process as easy as possible for your potential mentor. Ask for small favors. Ask how you can help them (you never know). And if they cannot commit to a meeting or to help, it’s worth asking if they know of anyone who might be able to give you advice.

Most folks who have “made it” are happy to help, as long as it fits within the limits of their time availability. If you’re not a fit for them, no worries. At least you have another successful person who’s aware of your journey, and that could pay off in unexpected ways.

Next week we’ll cover specifics on how to work with a mentor once you find one, including actionable tips on starting the conversation.

Keith Luedeman is the founder of Goodmortgage.com, an investor with Charlotte Angel Fund and a business mentor with the QC Fintech accelerator.

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