How to Be a Good Mentor in Business

If you’ve seen success as a store owner, you’ve probably been approached to be a mentor before. And why not pay it forward? If you’ve got the time to give, we’ve got tips on how best to find and teach your own future mentee.

And with us is the man that needs no mentor, Drew Sanocki. Tune in for tips on how to become a great mentor, find someone to guide along with our own experiences with mentors in the past.

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(With your host Andrew Youderian of eCommerceFuel.com and Drew Sanocki of NerdMarketing.com)

Andrew: Thanks so much for tuning in to today’s episode, and today on the show we’re going to take a slightly opposite approach of a topic that gets talked about I think a decent amount, which is how do you find a mentor? How do you go out and find someone to help you with your business? And we’re going to flip that around and say if you’ve got a store and you’ve seen a little bit of a moderate level of success, you’ve been doing this for a while, you almost undoubtedly have had people approach you to ask for help, to ask for your mentorship.

Andrew: And how do you do that well? How do you pick people to say yes to, to say no to? Lots of different things. How do you actually help out in a way that’s going to be meaningful for them? And joining me to talk about the issue, the man, the genius behind nerdmarketing.com, those glasses in the logo Drew, look like they could look very mentor-esh if I say so.

Drew: The man who needs no mentor.

Andrew: The man who needs no mentor. You should write the intros for this from now on as opposed to me. Drew how are you doing?

Drew: I’m doing great, I’m great. I’m here in New York. It’s the holiday season.

Andrew: Christmas in New York.

Drew: It’s beautiful.

Andrew: Very cool. Well, I think for this episode there’s a lot of obvious ones, like you need to be a sounding board, you need to listen to people. And the benefits of mentorship, why you should be a mentor, we’re probably not going to get into those too much, but talk about few other things that hopefully will be helpful, and at the very end as well, we’re going to switch around and touch on a little more, albeit a little more briefly, how to approach someone that you’d like to mentor you, because that’s something I think that gets asked a lot as well. So Drew, shall we dive in?

Drew: Let’s go.

Andrew: Let’s do it. So Drew, when I look at mentorship, I think there’s kind of a couple different approaches you can take. You can take the approach of if you do have a decent number of people asking for your help for things, that you can try to help everyone who comes to ask, and maybe have a meeting here, a meeting there and over the course of a year let’s say you meet with a dozen, or a couple dozen people, if you’re getting a lot of requests for help. Or you can take the approach where…

Drew: That’s my approach.

Andrew: That’s your approach?

Drew: Shotgun ’em.

Less People, More Time

Andrew: The other approach, I want to follow up with that in a minute, but the other approach is to really pick the people that you’re going to spend time with carefully, and then double down. And personally, that’s kind of the approach I think that I’ve personally taken. So why the approach that you mentioned?

Drew: I think I never thought about it as mentorship and I should have. It’s been more, when somebody emails through the blog or looks you up when you read about your business or something, and sends you an email out of the blue, and something they say resonates with you and you reply, and you might take a couple calls and help the person out. Like, that’s always the form it’s taken for me and I think I could be better about bringing some formality to that process so they get more value out of it, really.

Andrew: Right, yeah I like the idea of just really trying to focus your efforts. And for me, looking at people that you’re thinking about spending time with or helping, questions I like to ask are like, what’s their potential like? I would much rather…I’d much rather spend my time with someone who is kind of on the fence, who really has the potential but just needs a little bit of guidance, versus someone who probably hasn’t shown enough potential. And with potential, how is their interest, are they really interested in it? Are they following through, what they have actually done?

Are they actually, have they…are they following up with what you’ve, the small things you’ve said in the past? Those are kind of cues I see to really be able to double down on someone, and be a little more discriminating, because…

Drew: Yeah, how good was their initial pitch? Did they take the time to learn a little bit more about your business, and you?

Andrew: Yeah, exactly.

Drew: It matters.

Pick Folks You Can Connect With Personally

Andrew: I can see mentorship, you look at it, I really see it as helping people with potential, and not building a business for them. And I think sometimes people can approach a mentee or a mentor with this expectation that they’re going to be able to get the business off the ground for them, which just isn’t realistic. So another thing I think is really important is try to pick someone that you can actually connect with personally. If you’re actually going to be a mentor, especially in the approach I was kind of advocating, it’s a time commitment, right?

You’re meeting with someone on a regular basis maybe for years on end. And to be able to do that, to be able to stay engaged when you’re meeting with them, and not check out and just to be able to have a good rapport. People know when you’re not engaged and when you don’t have a good report. You’ve got to have someone that you can actually connect with, and I think that’s a part of the puzzle that I think a lot of times doesn’t get thought about.

Drew: Yeah, I mean when you asked me to take you on as a mentee, that was the thing I considered.

Andrew: You promised. Drew, you promised you were not going to talk about this. You promised you weren’t going to say that when I proposed this episode.

Drew: Right.

Andrew: I think another risk for people is, as a mentor, is this kind of idea that you are there to just throw knowledge out, and have it be sucked. You’re there to pontificate on all of the wisdom that you’ve acquired. And I don’t think that necessarily is the best approach a lot of times. I think being a sounding board and being available for questions is probably a higher priority, and I think about the lessons I’ve learned from mentors, from parents, especially Drew, and I can think of all sorts of things that people tried to tell me that didn’t sit, but the things that actually stick 99% of the time are things that, things you observe other people doing as opposed to people telling you.

Drew: Yeah one of my most powerful experiences with a mentor was when that guy just invited me to visit his business for a week, and just kind of watch and observe. And he wasn’t really pontificating, he wasn’t telling me what to do, but I just learned immensely from watching the person.

Andrew: Yeah, I’ve thought about there’s some trips I have coming up, and there’s someone I’m mentoring right now, and just supposed to sit and talk and have him just come along and see. I think that you learn way more doing that stuff.

Drew: Yeah, it’s good experience.

Don’t Sugarcoat It

Andrew: I think as a mentor there’s, I think as people there’s a temptation whether it’s with close family or acquaintances, to sugarcoat things. To be gentle, to be…to maybe not tell people exactly how it is but I think to be a good mentor, you need to have grace, you need to be…you do need to be gentle with how you deliver things, but you need to tell it to your mentees straight, and you might be, I think you need to take the approach that you might be the only person in the world who doesn’t sugarcoat things for them. And that’s hard to do upfront, but I think as a mentor it’s one of the things you can do that’s going to be most valuable to the person who’s learning from you, even though it’s difficult.

Drew: Yep, I agree with that.

Let Them Make Their Own Mistakes

Andrew: Another thing I think as a mentor important to think about, and I can’t remember where I heard this, but it kind of rung true for me, really is when you need to let your mentees realize things on their own, like kind of in that same vein that we were talking about. Sometimes making the mistakes are a lot more powerful and long lasting if they do it as opposed to being told.

So there’s someone I was mentoring, or still am, that was getting ready to start a t-shirt business. And there are a lot of reasons why starting a t-shirt business is a really difficult thing to do, and if I were to come out of the gates and said, “Hey, you don’t want to do this. There’s tons of t-shirt businesses. How are you going to differentiate yourself? Like how are going to scale this up? The margins are small,” talk about all the challenges with having no brand. Letting him go through it for a short period of time and learn those things.

All these different aspects about competition and market differentiation, and all these things are things he’s going to remember because he’s gone through it himself as opposed to me just sitting there, and telling him that. And if he was getting ready to, maybe if he was at a different point or if he was thinking about dropping five figures on the business, or he’d been slugging away at it for six months, something like that, there’s a different case to be made but I think letting people fail strategically on their own, even if you’re a mentor, sometimes can have its advantages. So…

Drew: I agree.

When It’s Time to Part Ways

Andrew: Drew, finally letting our understanding at least when it’s time to let mentees go. Every relationship like this you’re going to have is going to be different in scope, sometimes it might be for a couple months, sometimes it could be for three or four years. But don’t feel bad about when the time’s come for them to move on, or you’ve given them all you have to give. Just having a candid conversation and pushing them out the door in a gentle way. You can still keep the relationship open of course, but there’s always a point where it makes sense for that mentee to move on, and I don’t think you need to feel guilty about that.

Drew: So go free. Go free. I have a mentor experience about how I was let go at one point.

Andrew: What is it?

Drew: I have this great…probably one of the only mentors I had an e-commerce was this guy who ran a $200 million e-commerce brand, and in the early days he was great. He would reply. I can get into how I approached him and all this other stuff later, but he was the guy who brought me to HQ and basically opened the Camano and said, “This is how I run my business. You guys take notes,” and it was a great model. He ultimately sold the business for I want to say $200 million, and he just went off the deep end. Like, he just want to Burning Man, like wouldn’t reply to any emails. It’s like emailing saying congratulations and from your mentee.

Like the guy you had at headquarters for a week, and like, just haven’t heard anything back from the guy since then.

Andrew: Is he still off the radar?

Drew: He’s off, he’s gone, and he’s gone.

Personal Tales of Mentors (Both Good and Bad)

Andrew: That’s crazy. Man, I’ve had a mentor that, it was funny. He started as a great mentor, but then over time a lot of the things he told me to do backfired, and the strategies he told me to do backfired, and his business collapsed and I think he kind of…I haven’t heard from him since then, but yeah. I still learned a lot of things from him, but it’s kind of crazy how some of these relationships come out in the wash down the road. So I’m not sure we have a takeaway point for this but more just swapping stories at this point. Maybe it is a good way to segue into…so those are some thoughts on really how to be a good mentor. Just again, super fast highlighting.

Double down on your mentees and select them carefully. Pick someone you can actually connect with. Realize you’re not there to pontificate. Be brutally honest but loving. Let them make some of their own mistakes, and then finally let him know or realize when it’s time to let them go. But kind of maybe quickly how do you approach someone that you want to be a mentor for you, and how did you just quickly before we dive into these Drew, how were you able to build that relationship with your Burning Man mentor, for the lack of a better name?

Drew: There was an article that profiled him in INC, I think. I read it and I remember thinking, “You know, this guy, his business is exactly what I want to build. And it’s a drop ship at the time, a drop ship retailer, different category but man, what he’s done with it is awesome.”

And I just wrote him a really nice email that was very complimentary, and showed him that I had followed his career for a while, and I took the time to figure out a little bit about himself, where he lived, what he was working on and just introduced myself, and kind of just said like, “If you ever want to talk, or if you’d ever be open to a phone call, I’d love to talk to you for five minutes, and pick your brain. Here are some of my questions.”

I think showing that sensitivity that these are very busy people, and time is their most valuable commodity, and that goes a long way.

Andrew: I think one thing you notably didn’t do is you didn’t write him an e-mail and lead with, “Will you please be my mentor?”

Drew: No, no. I don’t think the word mentor ever came up in our conversation. It was just sort of a relationship that grew organically, from maybe he gave me a couple sentences in reply to that email, to a month or two later we were talking on the phone and then it became more regular, and then I’m going, I’m flying out to visit his business for a week. And we just stayed in touch over the years.

Andrew: Yeah and I think that’s how all, I mean I’m sure there are some exceptions but the vast majority of really effective and solid mentoring relationships start that way. They don’t…if somebody says, “Hey, will you be my mentor?” To me, if I don’t know them that reeks of just a massive time commitment for someone that I don’t know. I have no idea who they are, so I think approaching it with a one meeting mindset, or a one phone call mindset like you did is a really great way to do it, and if you can, if you can let the person you’re approaching know what you’ve already done…

For example I’ve read these books, or I’ve read these blog posts on your site and here’s the steps that I’ve taken to get where I am. And also if you can have like a clear agenda where you can ask them questions. For me, that phrase was funny. You mentioned that phrase Drew, that “Can I pick your brain?” I hate that phrase so much. To me that’s just like somebody that doesn’t have a clear agenda or request, but they just want to hang out for an hour and talk about random business stuff with no clear goal. Yeah. I think if you can approach it with a one meeting mindset, show what you’ve already done, and then parlay it from there into an ongoing relationship, that’s a great model.

Drew: Yeah, yeah.

Andrew: And you mention too, like being really sensitive of people’s times, if you show up for that first meeting, if somebody agreed to meet with you and talk to you about things, take notes like crazy. So then you have don’t have to come back and ask them things or double down. Be sensitive of their time. That’s, again I think if you can make a great impression on that first time, and then most importantly I think that one for mentors, the most impactful thing you can do as a mentee for your mentor is actually follow through with the advice that they give you, because I think so few people actually ask for advice, take it and then come back to the table and say, “You told me to do x, I did it. now I’m here. And here’s the next problem I’m facing.”

Because then actually from the mentor’s perspective, makes them feel like, “Oh my goodness, my time is actually being, I’m not wasting my time here. I’m seeing it’s actually causing a byproduct of something useful to happen.” And you’re going to have someone who’s 10 times more likely to continue to meet with you, to help you, if you’re actually making progress and acting on their advice.

Drew: You know, you really have the opportunity to sort of create your own coaching program, if you just act on the person’s advice and make a note to circle back. Don’t leave the ball in their court. You take on the onus of following up in a month or two.

Think Of How Best You Can Help Someone

Andrew: What do you think Drew, about the advice of, and kind of the old mindset of help first, right? So instead of asking who can help me, it should be, “How can I be of service to somebody?” So approaching a mentor, a potential mentor you’d like to get paired up with, and trying to offer to help them for free first to get your foot in the door, and to add value before you ask for advice. Thoughts on that approach?

Drew: I think it’s a good idea and it comes from the right place, but the fact is there’s often very little value that you can provide. I appreciate the gesture when people do it to me, like, “Hey, you might not have thought about this, or I realize this was screwed up on your website, here’s a way you can fix that,” or something like that. Yeah I appreciate that, but it’s probably not necessary.

Andrew: Yeah agreed I think the sentiment is appreciated, and I think if you can actually genuinely can help the person you’re reaching out to, it can be really powerful. I think often where it breaks down is if, let’s say you reach out and you say, “Hey I’d love to work for free for you, to do all your video marketing. Just let me know and I’d be happy to help out for a while.” Well for the person taking that example, for them that’s a net, yeah maybe you’ll come on board and help them for a little bit, but unless you have a lot of expertise in video marketing, unless you are able to identify a need in your mentor’s existing business where they need video marketing and you can really come in and add a ton of value for their goals without having to be trained, a lot of times unfortunately, offering to help out can cause more work for your mentor than otherwise, just not offering at all if they take you up on it.

So thoughts, mentoring, mentorship? Drew, you agreed to mentor at least a minimum of 50 people. You can reach out to Drew @DrewSanocki on Twitter, and as long as you’re one of those first 50, you’re doing hour long meetings for the next year for that 50, is that right, Drew?

Drew: Sure, yeah. Go to my ScheduleOnce, block off an hour or two.

Andrew: Perfect, you may never be able to do a podcast episode again. But hey, fun as always and thanks for batting this around with me, Drew.

Drew: Thank you.

Andrew: That’s going to do it for this week. If you enjoyed the episode make sure to check out the eCommerce Fuel private forum, a vetted community exclusively for six and seven figure store owners. With over 600 experienced members and thousands of monthly comments, it’s the best place online to connect with and learn from other successful store owners, to help you grow your business. To learn more and apply, visit ecommercefuel.com/forum. Thanks so much for listening and I’m looking forward to see you again next Friday.


What Was Mentioned

Photo: Flickr/Neoneow

Andrew Youderian
Post by Andrew Youderian
Andrew is the founder of eCommerceFuel and has been building eCommerce businesses ever since gleefully leaving the corporate world in 2008.  Join him and 1,000+ vetted 7- and 8-figure store owners inside the eCommerceFuel Community.

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