It takes a village to create a business

It takes a village to create a business

Note: This post originally appeared on Virgin Unite.

Since the 2013 launch of Suzanne Tyson’s company——she’s often wondered whether undertaking a startup in your 20s is easier or harder than it is in your 40s…

In your 20s, time, energy, fewer family and financial commitments and a healthy amount of ‘naïve optimism’ are on your side. In your 40s, a couple of decades of work experience, a broader network, and the ability to leverage your assets to bootstrap are definite advantages.

I happen to fall into the older of the two age categories and while I’ve yet to determine which is easier (let’s face it, startup land is never easy) there’s one thing critical to young or more mature entrepreneurs: mentoring.

In a corporate environment, mentoring follows a somewhat linear track: advice on career advancement, managing up and managing people, building upon strengths, mitigating weaknesses, training and development. The type of mentoring an entrepreneur needs might be better described as ‘vested networking’ because entrepreneurs have a never-ending need for connections to help fill their evolving skills-based gaps as their business grows: finance, marketing, sales, IT, HR, etc.

Regardless of age, finding the right entrepreneurial mentor is often a big challenge. And this is where the miracle of a great startup incubator can make all the difference.

To back up a bit, I had the distinct advantage of having worked for years in each of the sectors upon which HigherEdPoints is founded—loyalty, higher education and student debt. Even so, without mentoring at every single step of the way, the business would never have seen the light of day. My own ‘vested network’ encouraged me, pointed me in the right direction and often (literally) connected me to those who helped make it happen.

I didn’t need a mentor’s career advice, I needed someone (lots of someones) who’d done what I wanted to do, or knew how to help turn my idea into a reality. I’m still amazed looking back at the network of people it took to get this off the ground—it’s part of the reason our corporate tag line is “it takes a village to raise a mind.”

Once was launched and we started to get some traction, a whole new set of needs emerged. The skill set of my vested network didn’t extend into the start-up-post-launch-traction-pre-revenue territory. But once again, as fate would have it, a mentor suggested I connect with a well-known Toronto incubator, MaRS.

Right from the first meeting with Krista Jones, being involved with MaRS has been an earth-shattering, business-changing experience. An incubator full of people who’ve been there themselves, they’ve got your back and, best of all, they often know better than you what you need to get your venture to the next level.

We had the great fortune to be accepted into MaRS’ Impact8 Program within the Centre for Impact Investing—along with seven other ventures in the social and edtech space. We spent eight days over eight weeks in an intensive programme which culminated in an investor pitch day. By that final day we all had rock solid investor pitch decks and a very large first audience in front of whom we made our inaugural pitch. Opportunities like that for a start-up are worth their weight in gold, both in the moment, and over the longer term.

Interestingly, our cohort had an almost even distribution of 20-something, 30-something and 40-something entrepreneurs. What a great learning environment that created. Among other things, the digital natives provided insights into online best practices and the seasoned shared their experiences and networks.

Perhaps creating teams with 20 and 40 year olds is the answer to making a start-up easier. One thing’s for sure though, nothing will kill a venture faster than a ‘cloistered entrepreneur’. A mentor’s fresh set of eyes can do wonders for a business and an entrepreneur at any stage of the game.

Photo credit: gettyimages.