I’m an entrepreneur, but my close friends will tell you that I’m also a reality TV junkie. I like to pretend that my obsession with real-life competition shows is “for my job,” because my company, ‘ZinePak, creates fan magazines for celebrities, but the cold, hard truth is that cramming my DVR with "Dance Moms" and "Cupcake Wars" probably isn’t having much of an impact on the bottom line.
Like most entrepreneurs, my mind is never far from my business. And so, while catching up on "Project Runway" recently, I began to think about longtime "Runway" mentor Tim Gunn and his important influence on the show’s aspiring designers. In his role as mentor, he visits designers during key times in each challenge. He offers constructive criticism, provides an outsider’s perspective on each competitor’s garments and even gives emotional support when things get tough. His experience, advice and input are invaluable to each designer’s success, from the first challenge all the way to the big finale.
Gunn, a former Parsons School of Design faculty member and the current chief creative officer at Liz Claiborne Inc., is credited for reinvigorating an entire industry with his fashion know-how. And as far as celebrity mentors go, he’s the Mr. Miyagi of reality TV!
Here are a few attributes that make Gunn great at what he does. These same traits are important in all mentors, regardless of the industry.
“Make it work!” Gunn’s signature mantra sends a clear and hopeful message about doing the best you can with what you have. It’s a motivational reminder to constantly assess your situation and use the tools you already possess to get to the best possible outcome.
It’s all about trust. Gunn is part coach, part teacher and part friend. His calm but firm approach works because he always listens first, creating a comforting level of trust and compassion before offering his critiques. A trusting relationship is a vital trait in a mentor relationship.
Questioning makes a difference. Whether it’s leopard-print fabric or an unwieldy accessory, there’s never a decision that Gunn immediately dismisses. He gives competitors the opportunity to explain their vision and suggests ways to improve it, not dilute it.
The devil is in the details. It’s not always about the big picture. Gunn’s outside perspective helps competitors to think not just about completing the challenge at hand, but also about ensuring the little things add up to creating the best product they can create.
How You Can Make it Work
Just as Gunn’s expert advice helps steer designers in the right direction and sets the bar high for their own aspirations, business mentors can be make-it-or-break-it advisors to young entrepreneurs. So how does a young business owner go about finding a meaningful mentor without the help of a reality TV Fairy Godmother? Here's your six-step plan:
1. Make a decision. What are you looking for in a mentor? Do you want a coach, a friend or a combination of all three? You want someone you trust and who is as excited about the success of your business as you are.
2. Make a list. Once you decide what you’re looking for, make a list of the people in your life who fit the bill. Since you’ll be spending a fair amount of time with this person, you should choose someone whom you aspire to be more like. (Read: Don’t pick someone who has a great business but is kind of a jerk!)
3. Make a plan. Before you approach a potential mentor, think about how you want him or her to interact with you. Hour-long weekly meetings are probably unrealistic. Aim for something like quarterly face-to-face meetings, scheduled monthly phone calls and emails and quick conversations as issues come up in between.
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4. Make your move. Decide how you’ll ask this person to be your mentor. You should definitely ask in person—perhaps at the end of a nice lunch meeting.
5. Make agendas, be organized. Once you formalize the relationship with your mentor, take the time to get as much out of it as possible. Send agendas before every meeting and call. Take notes during every meeting and send recaps and action items afterward. Most importantly, make sure the mentor is doing most of the talking in each session. Your role is to learn.
6. Make it mutual. Although you are the one being mentored, think about ways you can make the experience enriching and rewarding for your mentor as well. Don’t hesitate to send over articles you think he or she might find interesting or offer to make an introduction to other interesting people who might be helpful in his or her business.
Remember, the perfect mentor for your business will help you “make it work!” not only week after week, but also year after year.
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Brittany Hodak is co-founder of 'ZinePak, a company that creates custom publications for entertainers, brands and celebrities. She and co-founder Kim Kaupe combine a small-format magazine with one or more CDs and exclusive merchandise items together into one package. She is also a member of the Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), an invite-only organization comprised of the world's most promising young entrepreneurs.
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