I was recently lucky enough to be part of a Santander Breakthrough Trade Mission to New York. Being with nine other ambitious entrepreneurs wanting to explore their international potential was quite something in itself, but when I reflected on the week and the incredible meetings that had been facilitated, I realised just how much I'd gained by having time to talk to other business-owners that are going through the same sort of journey as me.
I don't often get the chance to talk to other entrepreneurs. Most owner-managers are so busy running their businesses that personal networking is not a high priority, and the time needed to take part in an action-learning set is completely unfeasible. But when entrepreneurs do get together, the level of support and challenge to move a business forward is pretty invaluable.
Being part of a group of entrepreneurs is a bit like being the middle child in a large family. Feedback is immediate, robust and far from gentle. So on my first day in New York, having been widely taken to task by the group for not having sorted out an obvious issue linked to a project in my business, I was sort of grateful for the immediacy of the feedback. And guess what? After a few minutes spent beating myself up for being an idiot, I got straight on and sorted the issue out.
Most small businesses face similar challenges - recruiting the right staff, managing cash, taking on the right sort of investment and maintaining the energy of the founder and senior management team. And whilst mentoring and coaching can be invaluable to help the entrepreneur see the wood for the trees, there is also something very empowering about being given some 'tough-love' feedback from another entrepreneur that's also in the midst of it, and that knows how high the stakes are when your family's livelihood and the future of your staff depends on the decisions that you make.
It's also true that receiving poor coaching or mentoring is the fastest way to hurt an entrepreneur. There is nothing worse than somebody staking a claim on your precious time by giving irrelevant advice. So this got me thinking. What are the reasons for an owner-manager to actively seek out advice from other entrepreneurs?
1. Sorting out the needs today
The traditional mentor will be forward thinking, which is of course is essential, but fast-growth businesses also need to take care of today's issues and the day after tomorrow's issues - and there are many. Feedback from an entrepreneur can be invaluable in helping solve the immediate problems, which in turn clears the decks to address future vision.
2. Being tough
The entrepreneur doesn't have time for clichés and 'talking shops'. Progress needs to be real, meaningful and measurable and so feedback from a fellow entrepreneur is likely to focus on real progress and real decisions.
3. Holding up a 'painful' mirror
It's well-known, that the family of an ambitious entrepreneur is likely to be long-suffering, but there is also nothing more frustrating for an entrepreneur than being told that you need to 'get more balance' or 'work less', by those that haven't experienced the 24/7 demands of keeping a small enterprise growing. A fellow workaholic entrepreneur will hold up a mirror, and the painful reality can be a spur for change.
4. Skipping the sound-bytes
In the mentoring that I undertake with start-up entrepreneurs I've learned quickly that it's vital not to shy away from straight-talking. This is not to be unkind or challenging, but when the stakes are high - you cannot afford for somebody to tell you that your idea is a good one, if it's completely rubbish. You want your advisors to be direct and honest, not nice for the sake of it.
So whilst a good mentor or coach might be essential to help you achieve success as an entrepreneur - let's not forget that breakthroughs might also come from actively seeking feedback from other business owners. After all, none of us has time to chase rainbows...