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Mentor Advice Helps the Innovative Business Survive

04/06/2014 13:34 BST | Updated 03/08/2014 10:59 BST

Innovation is the key to success, but mentor 'outervation' can make or break a business.

Objectivity is often undervalued in business life, especially for entrepreneurs and small business owners. When people start a business, it's all about their passion and that creative spark. When innovation takes hold it's often the only thought top of mind - which is right and proper at the start. As part of my day job I'm in touch with thousands of small businesses, and one of the unifying motivations for all of them is that an individual has the focus and the energy to get up and go and create something brand new from scratch.

But that relentless focus and singular purpose can get in the way sometimes, especially as the business grows and looks to expand. In fact, in whatever size of business, we all tend to get mired in 'the inside out' mentality at times. In bigger organisations we all know the perils of working in the dreaded 'silos' without a view of the bigger picture.

For small businesses, it can be that business people simply get stuck in the detail of running the day-to-day. That's where a mentor can help, someone from the outside who can view your business from the perspective of the market or the customer - from the outside in, with the sort of objectivity that the business owner simply can't supply.

If small to medium businesses are to thrive, they need to look outside to get advice to make the next leap. Research from the UK's National Enterprise Network has shown that 70 per cent of small businesses that receive mentoring survive for five years or more, which is double the rate compared with non-mentored entrepreneurs.

In today's complex entrepreneurial business environment, mentoring can be more important than ever and make the difference between success and failure. Around the world, business confidence is returning and as trading conditions improve, high growth is the target.

Mentors can help businesses to make the right changes at the right times - it's an extremely effective way for business people to develop new skills, navigate diverse company growth decisions and understand how to deal with people and problems before they cause real damage.

A recent survey by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) found that 94 per cent of SMEs using external support have seen benefits. These firms are also more ambitious and have higher relative turnovers. This is not a coincidence!

The truth is that running a small business can be quite an isolated position. You don't necessarily have the network of business colleagues to brainstorm ideas with or a wide view of the choices in front of you. The right mentor can help small businesses think of new approaches, of innovations and ways of reinventing the business that simply would not have come up otherwise.

For example, a mentor to a small business owner might be able to say how the company's products and services are perceived relative to the competition or give them advice on how to market more effectively.

Of course, there is a problem with finding the right sort of objectivity for your business. One of the most important attributes for a mentor is empathy and when you are looking for a mentor, it is difficult to avoid the tendency to go towards people who are similar in outlook. If the mentor too closely shares your worldview, then you won't get the full strength of that outside-in counsel.

Such considerations may explain why there is a problem with the application of mentoring - a gap between those who understand that mentoring is a good thing and those who actually use one.

The BIS survey found that a third of all SMEs reported that there was a moment in their past when they would have benefited from a mentor, yet they had never used one.

Many people don't know how to find a mentor and many also feel uncomfortable about establishing a relationship and reluctance to engage an external advisor.

These barriers can be overcome when businesses realise that the best mentors save businesses time, effort and money by helping them to focus on what will help them grow and succeed. It is about collaboration.

Sage believes that mentoring gives SMBs the confidence and control to make the right decisions, and it's something I encourage throughout my business and to our customers. Innovation plus 'outervation' - it's the way forward.