My current role is Director of Customer Programs – a title that doesn’t give much away! Essentially, I lead our Small and Medium Business Division in the UK, which has responsibility for all of our SMB customers including some very exciting start-ups, as well as responsibility over acquiring new customers on to Microsoft technology. I’m a year and a half into my career at Microsoft, but I previously worked at numerous cloud specialist firms. On the side, I own and run a farm and property business.
I’m very exposed to the start-up environment in the UK and see the tremendous value that large corporations can add to these high-growth companies. Both in terms of product and operational support, and also through knowledge sharing and mentorship, to empower these companies to maximise their potential. Mentorship is a huge stepping stone to success for start-ups.
Gain different perspective and insights
The first benefit that comes to my mind when thinking about the value of mentorship, is how it opens up, what can be quite a siloed business, to different perspectives and insights.
By nature, start-ups are often small teams that are early in career. I have huge admiration for the talent and grit of start-up founders that I meet. However, I carry even more respect for the founder who is willing and open to listen to new ideas and perspectives that may contradict their current line of thinking.
No single person has the correct answer to business challenges. You’ll find the best solutions through a collaboration of ideas and feedback. A good mentor will have been exposed to various business challenges and will be able to use this experience to offer ways to find a solution. Don’t expect a mentor to always have the answer. Use them, instead, for guidance on how to find the answer.
Perspectives come in different shapes and sizes. A mentor can add value due to their career length and business exposure. Or they may have a high level of expertise in a new technology. or geographic knowledge. These are important variables to consider when looking for a successful mentoring relationship.
Expand your network
As I mentioned above, a mentor rarely has all the answers, however, they often know how to find them. A strong network is crucial for future development as it opens up resources that can be called in as and when they’re needed. Developing a network built around trust takes time; something many start-ups don’t have. By forming strong mentor relationships, you can leverage their network and reach resources through them.
Ultimately, it’s about collaboration for shared goals and sustained growth will only come from sustained relationships.
It’s important to consider how a mentor may be able to support your short-term objectives. If you’re approaching a stage where you might need funding, perhaps a mentor with a strong network within Private Equity funding would be useful.
Fill your knowledge gaps
A summary of the two previous points, yet critically important. You don’t know what you don’t know. The smaller a team is, the more internal they are, and the less exploratory they are; the more this problem is amplified. Often, a mentor simply needs to point out areas for improvement to empower a team to go ahead and solve problems before they even occur. Therefore, a mentor may ask a mentee more questions than they answer. The solutions may already be within the team, just not applied correctly.
During my time working with start-ups, I’ve noticed that these gaps can often be heavily related to either business challenges or technical challenges. I’ve come across plenty of teams that are mainly business minded and they require technical support. I’ve also come across an equal number of technical teams that are missing the business know-how.
This is the beautiful thing about support from a large corporation like Microsoft. We have all possible areas of expertise under one roof. We can call upon a marketing specialist just as easily as a cyber security specialist; yet, we don’t want this knowledge to be internal. We want our people out in the field, meeting and facing new business challenges, to promote their development, and to support the future growth of UK start-ups.
We are practising what we preach – sending our best and brightest out to support start-ups. Recently we launched our partnership with Innovation Catalyst to mentor their start-ups and we’re excited to replicate this programme across other regions to pass on our knowledge to empower more businesses and individuals to achieve more.