Working at 2 a.m. in the architecture studio while drinking a beer was just the inspiration Ben Vanden Wymelenberg, founder of Woodchuck USA, needed to launch a winning business idea. “I decided to play around with an acrylic case with a wood veneer and slap it on my iPhone,” he told me during an interview.
The idea caught on, and within months, those same wooden cases for smartphones, journals and tablets were in hundreds of college bookstores. The original excitement he felt over this new unexpected venture, however, would soon wane. The pressure and anxiety from changing his career path during his senior year, after having already invested almost four full years of his academic life and mind — as well as the risks of a new business idea — were weighing him down. When he looked in the mirror, Ben realized that he was at a crossroads: Should he pursue this business that was starting to show promise, at a significant risk, or forge forward with the established, safe option of attending graduate school on a scholarship for architecture?
Determined to find a mentor and a solution, Ben eventually found not one but three people who inspired him to seriously pursue the venture and start the business. Now, Woodchuck USA has products that can be found in 1,800 Target and Best Buy stores across the nation and is recognized as one of the fastest-growing young businesses in the country.
Look In (the Mirror)
Step one is to look in the mirror and determine where you are and why you need a mentor. For Ben, his look-in-the-mirror moment occurred that senior year of college when fate forced a major decision upon him. He first took stock of where he was and where he wanted to go before he approached his mentor.
Tip: Ask yourself, “Who and what do I want to be in three to five years?” Based on your strengths and weaknesses, what skills, resources and relationships do you need to close that gap?
Now that you know where you want to go, you must look up. Who do you see already at your desired destination? Specifically, who is currently in the industry, role and at the experience level that you aspire to? Ben quickly realized he needed industry guidance to help solve his career-change dilemma. He networked aggressively within the architecture community, asking for warm introductions and 15-minute coffee meetings with the appropriate individuals.
Eventually, he found two world-renowned architects who said, “Ben, go start the business, you can always go back to grad school.” When two rockstars in the industry show you that kind of belief, you listen.
Tip: Create a yellow brick road for your mentor to follow that explains how their specific experience matches with you and your needs. Every mentor you look up to is thinking the same thing: “Why me, and how much effort will it take?”
Look out for opportunities to give back to your mentor and for places where they are likely to be. Giving back can be a simple as offering to give feedback on their blog, sharing interesting articles, or volunteering at their non-profit.
Tip: You can find mentors at your alumni office, college speeches, trade associations, networking breakfasts, LinkedIn or on this list of online resources. For example, after appearing on the Ken Rutkowski Business Rockstars Syndicated Radio Show, Ben thanked the host for his advice and later asked him to meet for coffee. They now chat every week about life and how to grow his business.
Be sure to ask for the meeting, not for the mentor. First secure a 15-minute meeting to discuss three specific questions and create a rapport before asking to be mentored.
Don’t be an “askhole” (someone who asks for advice to boost their ego but never follows up, implements or takes any meaningful action). I once attended a keynote by one of the most powerful women on Wall Street, Carla Harris, Vice Chairman of Global Wealth Management at Morgan Stanley and author of Expect to Win. When asked about the biggest mentoring mistake people make, she replied, “Everyone emails me once, but no one follows up.”
Tip: Follow up and avoid broad questions or questions easily answered in an article your mentor wrote. Leave every meeting with AIR: an action item, insight, and a recommendation of someone you need to meet or a book you need to read.
The mentoring cycle is not complete until you look back and mentor someone else.
Alfred Edmond Jr., Senior Vice President of Black Enterprise and author of “Loving in the Grown Zone,” puts it best: “One of the things I consistently require of anyone I choose to mentor is that they be, or at least willing to be, a mentor to others.” How can you be too busy to mentor others, but still expect me to have time for you? Ben heard that message loud and clear. In our interview, he shared that he frequently sets aside time during the week to take calls from student entrepreneurs he meets at his keynotes: “You have to pay it forward.”
Now, follow these five steps and help others do the same.