Ben Bierman
JOHANNESBURG - It has been reported that 70 to 80 percent of South African small businesses fail within their first five years of existence.

While a common reason is a lack of funding, we have learnt in our 36 years of existence that providing small and medium enterprises (SMEs) with finance alone is often not enough and that the sustainability and prosperity of a business can increase significantly when this is coupled with mentorship and/or technical assistance. 

Herewith is a checklist to follow when looking to take on a mentor: 

1. Experience
While any competent mentor will likely have years of experience as an entrepreneur, the one that will be most beneficial should have solid experience in your industry. They should be able to look at the business as a whole, measure success in the broader overall strength and growth of the company and transfer the knowledge to the entrepreneur. 

2. Motivation
Mentors are often motivated by the satisfaction of seeing a business and an entrepreneur develop. Although it is important that they receive some kind of remuneration, they should do so for more than just the money.

3. Chemistry
The stronger the level of mutual respect and fondness, the more empathetic the mentor will be towards the struggles of the entrepreneur, and the more seriously the mentor’s advice will be taken by the entrepreneur.

4. Trust
As outsiders looking in at a business, mentors have to establish trust that the advice is sound and confidentiality is upheld. The entrepreneur also has to work at gaining the trust of the mentor by being open and forthright about all aspects of the business.

5. Exchange of value
It is important that the mentor derives clear benefits from the relationship. If the exchange of value is one-sided, the relationship will not last. It is always a good idea to write down the expected give-and-take aspects of the relationship to ensure this is always kept in balance.

6. Facilitation 
Given the complex nature of the relationship, it is advisable to work with a facilitator such as the Small Enterprise Development Agency (Seda) who can match entrepreneurs with ideal mentors. 

7. Terms of reference
Clear terms of reference help to manage expectations and create a setting in which the personal relationship between mentor and entrepreneur can flourish. Even if you meet a mentor informally and develop a relationship organically, it is a good idea to draw up a clear framework to outline the mentor’s involvement in your business.

8. Communication
A mentor can only give optimal advice if all aspects of the business are accessible, and if the advice is the result of a robust discussion between the mentor and the entrepreneur.

9. Timing
When a business is in crisis, the last thing an entrepreneur wants to do is spend time and money on mentorship intervention that will likely only bear fruit in a few months. On the other hand, when things are going well in a business, the perceived need for mentorship fades into the background. The best approach is to recognise the power of mentorship early, and set about seeking a good mentor before your blind spots and weaknesses become problems in the growth of your business.

Ben Bierman is the managing director at Business Partners Limited.

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

- BUSINESS REPORT