Mentors are key to helping entrepreneurs reach the next stage of development

Anthony Browne
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IT SEEMED Julie Waddell had all the ingredients for success when she set up Moorish, which sells Britain’s only smoked hummus products. Orders were pouring in, a leading supermarket had expressed interest in her wares and she had been nominated for an industry award.

But Waddell needed help. Lacking business experience, she turned to Chris Sallnow, a retired banker turned mentor. Sallnow took the time to understand Waddell’s business, and together they established where she wanted Moorish to go and how it could grow. Waddell decided to hire a bookkeeper and concentrate on marketing. The result was a lucrative contract with British Airways.

Thousands of business owners like Waddell are finding that mentors can make a real difference. A recent survey by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills found that 94 per cent of SMEs using external support have seen benefits. These firms are more ambitious and have higher relative turnovers. Impartial guidance and practical help add value.

So in July 2011, we joined with the major UK banks to launch Mentorsme, with key partners including the Small Firms Enterprise Development Initiative (SFEDI).

While there are numerous types of external support available, the key feature of mentoring is that it is not advice. Mentors are not prescriptive or directive. They nurture a one-to-one relationship tailored to an individual’s needs, not those of their business. Businesses benefit from the fullness of a mentor’s experiences, like market knowledge, how to prioritise workloads and insight into planning and strategy. The focus is on confidence building. The onus is on the owner to deliver results.

Mentorsme has come a long way in two years. The number of mentoring organisations has trebled, and they manage in excess of 27,000 mentors – including over a thousand bank mentors. Each has been handpicked and enrolled in a bespoke training course designed by SFEDI.

Last week, representatives from Britain’s enterprise community gathered in London for the inaugural Mentorsme Excellence in Enterprise Mentoring Awards. They celebrated the help mentors have given to entrepreneurs in starting and growing a business, building innovation as well as exports and diversity. But the night could not have happened without the support of our partner organisations, like Rockstar, School for Startups, Association of Business Mentors, Birmingham University and EY.

Guests heard how Waddell’s story was not exceptional. Just ask Daniel Hawthorn at TRAC Oil and Gas, whose business is now made up of over 25 per cent exports and has just launched an office in Australia. Mentors are helping a diverse range of SMEs take their businesses to the next stage.

All of the winners and nominees have unique experiences to share. Take Gary Smith at Brainbook, whose Dyslexia Toolbox app is encouraging reading, Mutant Labs, which is “changing the way games are played forever”, or Street Food Chef, a catering business in Sheffield. They enlisted the help of a bank mentor to assist them in re-examining their cash-flow. Their subsequent growth is one of a number of success stories.

The next time you find an SME owner unsure of their next move, suggest they talk to a mentor. They may find what they’re looking for.

Anthony Browne is chief executive of the British Bankers’ Association.