Mentorship over money: A key to entrepreneurial success

Mentorship over money: A key to entrepreneurial success

Imagine you’re starting out on your journey as an entrepreneur. You’re excited. You’re overflowing with ideas, with this vision of the future that you can help to create – and you’re being propelled forwards by enthusiasm and passion.

So what do you do? You work hard to turn your idea into some kind of reality. To make your prototype, to test your service, to launch your product. Maybe you throw yourself into a seed funding round because…you need money. 

There’s an uncomfortable question that most entrepreneurs don’t ask themselves when they’re at this early stage of building a business: What am I lacking? 

And the answer, according to James Caan CBE (Serial entrepreneur, Media Commentator and Former Investor on BBC’s Dragons’ Den) is (usually) experience. 

Experience is a key ingredient for success – so entrepreneurs should seek it out 

“When you look at an entrepreneur,” Caan said at #LEAP23, “we start off with an idea, we raise some money, we have passion and excitement. The thing that we lack is experience. By definition – we’re a startup.” 

“So one of the things that I spent a lot of time doing, with 50,000 businesses that I’ve backed and started in the UK, was identifying mentors for these businesses. I believe one of the biggest things we lack when we start a business is the experience of execution. And therefore the concept of mentorship for me was imperative.” 

Entrepreneurs don’t need to limit their pool of possible mentors to only the best in their industry. A good mentor doesn’t have to be famous for doing exactly what you do – but they do need to be relevant to your business, and have a lived experience that you can learn from. “Find somebody who can experience what you’re experiencing,” Caan said; someone who knows what you’re going through and what you’re working on, and can give you a wise perspective. 

This isn’t just speculative. Caan has a track record of leveraging mentorship for the benefit of entrepreneurs and startups. “We had an entire team of mentors around the UK working with startups,” he noted, “and I truly believe they were able to transform how those businesses developed.” 

“I think entrepreneurs sometimes believe it’s money that makes the difference. Money is just one ingredient — the experience factor, to me, is just as important as the capital you need to start a business.” 

One example of the value of an experienced mentor came from a UK entrepreneur who’d created a food product. Caan approached one of the buyers at Sainsbury’s, the second largest supermarket chain in the UK, and asked them to spend one day a month with this entrepreneur. The result? The entrepreneur realised she couldn’t produce her product at a price that a major supermarket would buy for – so instead of spending years trying to make it work, she changed the product. It seems so simple; but it’s the kind of insight that an entrepreneur can gain either through months or years of setbacks, or in a moment: from an experienced, relevant mentor. 

Don’t be afraid to acknowledge what you don’t have

The lesson here is that asking that question (what do I lack?) isn’t a negative way to start a business. It’s a way for entrepreneurs to open themselves up to greater potential. By acknowledging that experience has value, you give yourself permission to ask for help – because no one starts their startup journey with all the answers in their pocket. 

For Caan, getting experienced mentorship is a crucial way for entrepreneurs to ensure they’re ready to grow their startups in the future – along with:

“Attending conferences like this. Knowing what’s coming. Knowing what’s available. Knowing what is happening in your market, in your industry, in your sector. Don’t be overly global, be very specific in what’s relevant to your particular business.” 

If you haven’t met your ideal mentor yet, register your interest to attend LEAP 2024 – to get in a room with the world’s most experienced tech industry leaders.  


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