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Entrepreneurs Need Mentors - Here's Why

14/07/2014 13:19 BST | Updated 10/09/2014 10:59 BST

I first became passionate about mentoring when I worked as a nurse in the NHS. It opened my eyes to the possibilities of helping people develop their skills by sharing experiences and knowledge.

A recent report by King's College London said mentoring of students in the NHS needed to be given a higher priority to improve levels of care. I haven't worked in the NHS for a number of years, but I can agree with the general point that mentoring needs to be a high priority.

I've worked as a mentor with several entrepreneurs. I can testify - and I'm pretty sure they'll agree - that having someone who's 'been there and got the T-shirt' is incredibly valuable for someone setting out on their own.

Research supports the idea that the value of mentoring can't be underestimated. Figures from the Small Firms Enterprise Development Initiative show 70% of small businesses that receive mentoring survive for five years or more. This is double the rate compared with non-mentored entrepreneurs.

The study also showed small businesses that received mentoring were 20% more likely to experience growth than those that didn't.

However, despite these encouraging statistics, evidence from a Moore & Smalley accountancy survey suggests 42% of small-business owners have never consulted a mentor. And a recent poll conducted at the Business Centric Services Group showed 55% of start-ups did not plan to use a mentor once their business was up and running.

Research from Sage, the software company, shows two thirds of SMEs believe mentoring can help them expand, but only 22% are seeking support from an expert. In fact - and worryingly - many are turning to personal contacts without any experience of running a business.

I have been working recently with start-up entrepreneur Laura Bowley, who runs the Happy Bodies Gym near where I live and work in Milton Keynes.

I met Laura when I was trying to create my own 'happy body' - she was a personal trainer and I knew I needed some help to get fit. We met up regularly, and Laura even came into our PJ Care head office to work with our care teams.

When Laura told me she was looking to start her own business, I became her mentor.

I was able to give her the benefit of my experience in many different aspects of commercial life. We discussed issues like cashflow, making accurate projections, what loans might be needed, and how she would repay them. I was able to help Laura put together a robust business plan.

Then I provided her with a list of people who might be able to help her in other areas - people I had worked with and trusted, like a lawyer and an accountant.

Now I provide Laura on-going mentoring support. It's important for anyone starting up in business to have a sounding board for their ideas. Running your own business can be lonely - you need someone to listen to your problems and share their own experiences.

Things aren't easy for Laura, by any means, but she continues to increase gym membership, is developing an onsite physiotherapy practice, and is also committed to providing classes targeting young girls who sometimes don't get enough exercise.

I have 'been there and done it' during my time setting up and running PJ Care. My company is now the UK's leading independent provider of neurological healthcare, treatment and rehabilitation. My achievements in business, and my contribution to charitable organisations, were recently recognised with a CBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours List.

My own mentor was David Coombs, director of nursing at the hospital in Gloucester where I worked. He advised me: 'If you want to change the world, you need to become a manager'. He also said I needed an MBA and agreed to pay for my studies.

He was incredibly influential in my life, and I'm passionate about helping others on the way up too.

One of the things I was keen for Laura to understand, and something I learned, was that occasionally you need to take time out from the business, to take stock and recharge your batteries. It's easy for a person running their own business to work so hard they burn themselves out.

So what does it take to be a good mentor? Well, you do need to have certain qualities. I'm a good listener, and I can think laterally - come up with ideas 'outside the box'. But it's important not to actually give advice - the person you are mentoring has to make their own decisions. I simply tell the people I mentor what has worked for me and pass on my experiences.

When Richard Branson chose to follow in the footsteps of low-cost airline entrepreneur Sir Freddie Laker and launch Virgin Atlantic the elder businessman told him: "You'll never have the advertising power to outsell British Airways. You are going to have to get out there and use yourself. Make a fool of yourself. Otherwise you won't survive."

Almost 30 years on and the very thought of a business world without Branson's eccentric, perhaps foolhardy but always brilliantly clever, self-promotion seems almost impossible to imagine. By passing on his experiences Laker wasn't just Branson's inspiration he was his mentor, too.

I've worked well with Laura because we have different strengths and attitudes. I don't expect Laura to work as I do. She has a different method of working to me, so she has to find her own way of doing things.

I get a huge amount of satisfaction from mentoring. I don't want to see people fail. It takes a lot of guts and hard work to start up on your own - and that's why people like me, who have built a successful business, should give something back. And, of course, it's not a one-way street. I will hopefully get the benefit of seeing someone I have helped and inspired make a success of their business - and perhaps somewhere along the road they will, in turn, become a mentor themselves.