With a focus on men in business this month, Verve thought who better to interview than a mentor? So we sat down with one of the country’s best: Simon Fortescue of Business Mentors NZ.
“Business mentoring is about building trusted relationships with people in a short space of time,” Simon tells me. “You want your mentee to really open up because the more they do, the more you can help. They need to tell you what’s really happening, rather than paint a fake, rosy picture.”
Simon Fortescue has been a business mentor for nearly a decade. Having spent 25 years working for start-ups and medium-sized tech firms here and in the UK, he “wanted to give back.” I ask him if they do things differently in Europe.
“There are always differences to how people in other countries approach things,” he says. “New Zealand is a hugely supportive environment for small businesses. I believe this is because it is so far removed from the rest of the world. People here have a greater acceptance of SMEs and are keen to do business with them. There’s also an opportunity to build big companies in a small market, testing here before taking on the rest of the world.”
How did you come to be a mentor?
“Someone who is looking to start a business often has a specific trade or skillset, but lacks the business knowledge they need to launch and run a successful start-up. I’d done well for myself and knew I could help other people. I also believe in continuous learning, so I was keen to take on the challenge of becoming a mentor and learn something new myself.”
Simon says he generally sees no difference in the approach to business by men or women. He works with both and has “had equally awesome experiences” with both. “It’s not about a person’s gender but about who they are,” Simon continues. “A positive business experience is about a person’s belief in themselves and their ability to self-motivate in any situation.”
Interestingly, Simon reveals that mentors must understand that they their role is not to directly solve their mentee’s problem, but rather to “help them solve the issues themselves”: “We have the resources and skills to help the owner, but ultimately the owner needs to come to their own decision.”
Also essential is that once there is a plan in place to problem-solve, the boss must learn to be held accountable to it. It’s not uncommon for entrepreneurs to become so overwhelmed with the everyday that they lose focus on the bigger picture. “As their mentor, holding them accountable actually makes things easier for them,” says Simon.
An important element of that big picture is the acceptance that “losing isn’t as bad you think”. “Having been in sales for year, I won and lost lots of big contracts,” says the mentor. “You learn that failure is not failure — it’s feedback that leads to success. Never be discouraged, just think about that bigger picture.”
One of the best results is a reduction in stress levels, something that gives Simon one of his biggest kicks. “Witnessing that, either because you’ve helped solve a problem, or been someone with whom they shared their worries, is the most satisfying part of mentoring,” he says. “There’s a natural reluctance to share business problems with close friends and family, so I’m delighted that I can come in and be a sounding board that helps people to open up.”
Having helped so many others in their professional lives, I close by asking Simon about those who have inspired or mentored him.
“There have been a few throughout my career. My first ever boss, Mike Regent, was a great inspiration to me. He was the managing director who had left a competitor to start his own business. He generated huge turnover in a five — ten year period, and sold the business not long after. But it was the company culture he created that I admired so much. Old co-workers I speak to today still say it was the best job they ever had. Outside of the people I have actually met, the person I look up to now is Elon Musk. He sets such huge goals and doesn’t stop until they’ve become a reality.”
Simon’s Tips for a Successful Start in Business
First off, Simon believes that the safest industry in which to start out is one that the new business owner already has an understanding of: “The riskiest is the one that they have no experience in.”
The most common error is a lack of understanding around finance: “It’s crucial for a business owner to get their head around accounting and cash flow — they really have no other choice.”
There are plenty of bodies out there like the Chamber of Commerce and IRD who offer assistance including money management courses, often for free: “There is also some truly great accounting talent in this country, people who understand and are willing to help SMEs. Many of the accounting firms here are SMEs themselves.”
Never be afraid to ask for help or support: “You don’t have to go it alone!” There are many resources out there, including Business Mentors NZ, who can help alleviate the stress. “You’ll soon realise that there are loads of other people who have been there and done it before you,” says Simon.
Business is always evolving, but the need for traditional business will continue as people enjoy face-to-face interactions. “It’s important that SMEs understand how the internet can help them to survive and grow,” Simon adds. “Things often go in two directions. For example, internet-giant Amazon is now planning to open a number of traditional bricks-and-mortar stores. It’s all about educating yourself and learning how to use online tools effectively.”