By Marc Seery (Sage One Product Marketing Manager).
For the last 4 years or so I have been a volunteer mentor for Northumbria University students who are involved in the Graduate Enterprise Scheme.
This is where students from across the University are required to set up a business. They come to together as a small ‘rabble’ from a diverse range of courses, from sports and business through to fashion design and computing.
It’s great fun watching them gel as a team, with the laidback sports students casually dressed in shorts to the fashion design students with their very individual styling. The business ideas can come from anywhere and as a mentor you can only question the practicalities. For example, is there room for another supplier of cases for smart phones or is a drinking games set really going to set the world alight? But I guess they know a student’s drinking market better than I do.
Bringing it all together
What I love is the enthusiasm, early naivety and the coming together of different talents – for example the jewellery designer is happy to produce the product but wants nothing to do with the marketing and accounts. It all starts in a very random way and my job is to help them decide on their priorities.
Over the months it’s great to see things taking shape – they discover how difficult it is to find customers despite having designed a super logo and having a snappy business name or they find they have too much stock or none at all and there is more competition than they thought. Everyone is selling to their target market – usually students.
It all gets even more interesting as the deadline date loom for presentations to their lecturers. Suddenly, I get a panic email asking to meet up the next day. I always try to accommodate their deadlines because I know they are under pressure. This is also when the best of them really get into gear. It’s great to see how they have moved from a laidback grouping to a team that need to present back on what they have achieved. And that includes reporting back on marketing and sales plans but also the finances.
Not surprisingly, everyone wants to be the Marketing Director or MD but there are fewer volunteers for Financial Director – but this is where the FD comes to the front. They know the lecturers love to quiz the teams on their financial forecasts and where they are now. What they are going to do to increase the profit or reduce the loss? The penny literally drops.
What’s in it for me?
Why do I give my time up to be a mentor? Simply because it’s great fun and it’s great to see a new wave of talent coming through. I also discover that I actually have some useful knowledge about marketing and product development that is appreciated. It also keeps me in touch with a youth market that speaks a completely different language about business – so much driven through smartphones and tablets.
And of course it’s great to receive feedback like this:
“We got 78% for our presentation which we were very proud of. In our formative presentation earlier in the year we got 54% but we took on board the feedback from our lecturers and your advice this time round”.
“Thank you very much for all of your help this year, particularly with the marketing section of the business plan”.
“Firstly as a group we would like to thank you for your input and advice in relation to our business proposal. Despite the lack of preparation, your guidance helped us obtain a 73% mark for this! We feel we have progressed as a group however our predictions in our business plan may have been a little ambitious!”
Get involved and give something back
So, if you’d like to give something back and have the opportunity to be a mentor, I’d encourage you to do it. Sometimes, just having an experienced person to bounce ideas off can make a huge difference to the entrepreneur or small business owner and I guarantee you’ll feel good about sharing your knowledge.
I was actually invited to become a mentor by someone I met through networking (which you can read about in my ‘Networking advice for start-ups and small businesses‘ blog) but it may also be worth approaching a local college, university or enterprise agency to offer your services.
The Department for Business Innovation & Skills (BIS) paper ‘Demand for mentoring among SMEs‘ published in December 2013 also offers some great insights into how demand for business mentors can be increased and how barriers can be overcome.