Nowhere does it say you’ve got to do this all alone. Find someone who’s come before you and ask for help. Odds are, you’ll get what you ask for.
What you’re doing here is pursuing the American Dream. I don’t know about you, but I love seeing people succeed. And if there’s a way to help someone else reach a goal, most people are eager to pitch in.
To find a mentor, you need to take some initiative. Finding the right person in the right industry at the right stage of her career takes some homework.
Lester Wunderman, the father of direct marketing and the most influential person in his industry, has been a tremendous teacher for me. So has Jay Levinson, the original guerrilla marketer, along with several other less famous but no less influential mentors I’ve found.
If you feel as though you’re alone out there, go get some help. Not everyone will say yes (most of us are way too busy to mentor everyone we’d like to). But if you can find the right people, odds are some of them will be happy to assist you.
I recommend two steps in acquiring a mentor:
PICK THE RIGHT PERSON.
Famous people aren’t always your best bet. They’re busy, they’re in demand, and they may be hard to reach. And, believe it or not, they’re not always the smartest people in town.
The mentor you choose should be convenient (a mentor 5,000 miles away isn’t going to help you much unless e-mail is the interaction mode of choice). And he should have life experience and a network of connections that really help your business. Picking a willing mentor isn’t nearly as important as picking an effective one.
MAKE IT EASY FOR THE MENTOR TO SAY YES AND EASY TO SAY NO.
You’re asking for a favor here. A big one. For that reason, you can’t feel defeated if the mentor doesn’t have the time or the interest to help you. If that happens, overcome your natural bootstrapper desire to persist, and graciously move on.
There are lots of reasons why an individual might not want to mentor you. Time is the biggest one, of course. But there may be organizational, competitive, or personal reasons as well. You can be sure it’s not about you personally, but some external factor. Let it go.
I’m a big fan of a letter, or maybe two letters, in which you lay out who you are and what you’re looking for. You probably don’t want to write to a stranger and say, “Hey, want to spend 10 hours a week giving me free advice?” Instead, start the relationship in a simple, no-obligation way. Maybe ask the person to lunch to pick her brain. Maybe inquire about friends of friends who might be able to point you to other friends…
One woman I know is an expert networker. She has had a series of minimentors, people who help her with specific issues.
She asks her network of people, “Who do you know who’s an expert on topic x?” Then she writes a short letter to the person who’s been recommended, mentioning the person who recommended she write and asking for 15 minutes on the phone.
She calls the person’s secretary, then sends the letter. Nine times out of 10, she gets her 15 minutes on the phone. She spends 10 minutes exploring the issue she needs help on, then asks for (and usually gets) the names and phone numbers of three or four other people who might be able to help.
And she always sends a nice thank-you letter.
Is it hard? Not at all. Does it require preparation so she doesn’t sound uninformed? Absolutely. But it is the single dynamic behind her phenomenal success-she seems to have access to any person and any information she needs.
One last thought: Never ask your mentor for more than advice. Don’t ask for money. Don’t ask for free output (like a designed ad or a written proposal). If you do, both of you are put on the spot. And your request will often lead to an awkward end to the relationship. Mentors don’t commit for money, but for the gratification of seeing someone else succeed. They want to see your work pay off.