Startup Advisories

The traits of a business mentor

In his book on Startup Communities, Brad Feld defines mentors as ‘experienced entrepreneurs or investors who actively contribute time, energy and wisdom to startups.’ While an advisor has an economic relationship with the entrepreneur, the mentor is one who gives before he gets, and has no clear outcome goals or economic rewards.

From time-to-time, AGA invites experienced businessmen and matured startup founders as pro-bono mentors for our startups. This question is often asked, “So what are the traits of a mentor that an entrepreneur should seek out?”

I do not have a specific book on this, but instead I did a personal reflection over my previous fifteen years as an entrepreneur. I realised I had many successful business mentors who came by me in different seasons of my life and helped me grow in maturity. And through a few of these examples, I hope to exemplify their traits.

1. The visionary

We often read about many business personalities and their visions for inspiration. But it is nothing compared to having a personal one to inspire you.

Uncle Beng is an old family friend who has seen me grow up since young. He runs a public-listed agriculture-related company on the SGX with a list of successful achievements to date. What struck me was his ability to create a vision of expanding his company to capture many markets at a quick pace. He saw a great need for his products but the markets were fragmented and unique in different business styles.

He will meticulously share his vision with his people and tailor different strategies for various markets. When it comes to opening a new market, he never fails to be the first man to be there in the action and creating a quick SOP to grow the market with speed. His strength is combined with his ability to train a team of loyalists out from Singapore and sends them out to head and operate the new markets. His lean and mean expansion strategy was also one which did not pressure the company’s finances.

From his sharing, I have learned that your vision is as big as you want it to be and you are always able to conquer it.

2. The encourager and supporter

Do you feel many at times when you are down and out, especially on the roller-coaster ride of entrepreneurship? That is normal and we always need someone to listen and rebuild your confidence up.

Uncle Paul was a best buddy’s father. For a period of time, I travelled regularly to KL for my eCommerce expansion into Malaysia. Uncle Paul and my buddy lived in Singapore on weekends but travelled on weekdays to work in KL, so I regularly hitched a ride with them. And while my buddy was snoring at the back of the car, I had a great time speaking with Uncle Paul.

In 2004, eCommerce was still relatively nascent and very challenging in the Malaysian market. There were so many times I was down and wanted to give up, complaining that there were too many barriers to create something successful. Uncle Paul shared with me his life experiences of how he started a humble PC shop and through many obstacles, he overcame them and built his IT business, which he listed on the KLSE.

He believed in me and encouraged me to see beyond the problems. He did not give the specific solutions, but he instilled confidence through his regular encouragement that I actually have the answers, just that I need to go and execute them.

Uncle Paul was a mentor who did not want to impose his ideals and methods on me, but rather trained and guided me to solve things on my own. That encouraged me to grow to resolve issues on my own rather than always running to someone for help.

3. The executioner

Entrepreneurs are generally in the Driven category of the DISC spectrum. Stereotypically, they are not the best people who can be systematic in what they do, because they are always out exploring new ideas and thrive on unstructured settings. But when it is time, entrepreneurs need some discipline to carry out the execution of the business.

Mr Kwok is a key executive in my father’s company and well-known for his strict regime and operational procedures. He had a pet side project of running F&B outlets and one day offered me an opportunity to help him run one restaurant outlet for him. Despite the objections my father had, I took the chance to get involved to learn his operational expertise.

Mr Kwok was the meanest mentor and I was shacked out by his training. His mind set was very tough and he demanded the highest standards from me. He could not care less if he offended me and stretched me to the limits of working seven days a week to resolve issues and be creative in ensuring the operations were profitable.

As I finally ended my stint at the F&B outlets, it taught me so much on finance and forecasting, it is now an ingrained skill and part of the methodology in our investees at Tri5 Ventures. I also learned that execution of operations had to be decisive and non-emotional, which I still struggle at times even today.

4. The humble

Having a father who is a serial entrepreneur has its benefits. Through the many years I have observed him, my father’s high EQ was the key to his successes. Many of his associates worldwide have always told me my father was a sincere, honourable and generous man and they trusted him in business.

It was through my father that he taught me the power of relationships and reputation capital. He trusted me with his connections which linked me to various relevant people through my entrepreneurial journey. What I felt important as well was his humility for helping others, refusing to acknowledge who he has helped. He told me that we make money not only for ourselves but also to help others quietly because it is our duty to do so.

This trait, I believe, is critical for entrepreneurs to hold especially when they are acquiring wealth at a fast pace. Having a firm foundation of humility anchors an entrepreneur from being overconsumed by pride, and to remember his roots and humble beginnings.

5. The spiritual faith assured

Entrepreneurship has an element about having faith and believing for success. And if you are a person of faith, it becomes natural to rely on the teachings of your faith to guide you in your journey. It has been a privilege to have received direct mentorship from my spiritual leader, Apostle Dr Dowdy. Her biography alone is an enriching experience of how she faced so many challenges and crossroads, and yet relying on faith in God alone had shown her success. Her iconic success of being an American who helped grow a humble little Singapore church with less than twenty members into a congregation of five thousand and two locations when she completed her tenure was a testament of her business skills and startup experiences of bootstrapping, along with her faith.

During my time with her, she would help me explain the trials I was facing and to encourage me with biblical references on how to overcome them. The most powerful value I gained are the revelations that she spoke of that I would not have seen from my perspective. So when things are down and everything seems lost in a venture, if you are a person of faith, turn to your faith for assurance and revelations.

Time to step up

Every mentor I encountered had various degrees of successes in their lives, but success alone did not define the quality of value they each have given me. Their impartation of knowledge, training, encouragement and thought leadership have built me up to the person I am today. And through AGA, I had the privilege to provide my own experiences and knowledge to the next generation of entrepreneurs. But in all honesty, quality mentors are still lacking in the ecosystem. I myself am still far from being a quality mentor, who has yet to build a MNC-sized business like my mentors had.

From a tech ecosystem’s viewpoint, raising a new group of quality business mentors will bring Singapore to the next level of development. There are many successful businessmen and startup founders in Singapore who have done well and have much experience to impart, but with as many reasons they have not come forward.

Well, good news. A public initiative will be launched in early 2016 to gather quality business mentors to be involved. And it is this hope that people will step forward to join as mentors and raise the quality of startups being developed.

Ending thoughts

Business mentorship is a critical intangible aspect to developing an entrepreneur, which in turn makes him an effective founder in his startup. To sum up what I learned from my mentors, they guided me to think big, to think independently, to be courageous, to stand in my convictions and to believe together with me. Their successes had also been an inspiration for me to create my own.

We can learn business hard skills from books, online materials or from academics, but experiences and thought processes are obtained from business mentors. And mentors are the guides which bring the founder and his company on the right path.

This article first appeared on Tech in Asia.