2 Critical Startup Lessons From My First Business Mentor

By | Small Business

My mentor is not world-famous; he’s the owner of a small public relations company. I met him in college when he gave a guest lecture and I spoke with him afterwards. At the time, I had recently started my first business, a web-based company that helped promote local businesses with strategies such as paid advertising, search engine optimization, videos, press releases and other fairly standard online marketing tactics.

I had gained some clients and made a little money, but my business was not taking off the way I had envisioned. I requested a meeting with my mentor to ask his advice. He agreed, first asking me some preliminary questions and taking a look at my website.

Through this experience, I learned several valuable lessons that motivated me to change my whole approach to my business – as well as other businesses that I’ve started or worked for thereafter. Not only did these suggestions help me, but I’m convinced that others would be able to benefit from applying this wisdom to their own businesses as well (and finding a mentor or two of their own).

Know Your Customers Like the Back of Your Hand

“Who are your customers?” This basic question from my mentor was in response to what I now see was my overly generalized approach. What I had unwittingly done was the online equivalent of putting up a big sign in front of a store that said “Buy great stuff here.” There was no attempt to identify exactly who my services were for. When answered, “I help businesses that want to get more website traffic and sales,” he told me that this blanket statement was far too vague. There are millions of Internet marketing businesses out there, and I needed to target my audience more precisely to stand out from the back. By specializing, I could start to establish myself as an expert in a my particular niche.

This piece of advice drove me to take stock of what type of customers I could best serve. Because I had already had success with a few local restaurants, I decided to make that my specialty. One of the services I offered was to take video and interview local business owners. By working exclusively with restaurants, it became easier to build credibility and show other prospective clients what I had done.

One of the very first things you should do is decide what type of customers you want to attract. You can often carve out a profitable niche for yourself by specializing rather than trying to serve everybody. You may do this by serving a certain type of customer or by becoming an expert with a particular process or technology; either way, it will make your offering more appealing to those customers you are best able to serve.

Show Them How You’re Different

The other major lesson I took away from my mentor was the value of establishing a unique presence in the marketplace. While I had read this in business books, I had never given it much thought. My mentor, however, explained that as a PR person in a very competitive field, he had learned the importance of distinguishing his style and approach.

I began to experiment and incorporate more of my own personality into my campaigns. When creating videos for restaurants, for example, I began to use a more playful and humorous approach. This made the videos more entertaining while still allowing me to include all of the essential information. From client feedback, and my own analytics, I quickly found out that the new, less traditional type of videos were producing better results. I realized that, up until then, I had unconsciously been copying the styles I had seen other businesses use. The decision to develop and express my own style is something I kept this in mind for other types of promotions as well, such as text and banner ads. My new approach helped me gain clients who appreciated my methods and also helped me produce better results.

This advice is useful to anyone who wants to get noticed and stand out among the competition. When you are first starting out, you may have a natural tendency to stick with what’s familiar. But try to forge your own path. Part of this is a matter of self-confidence – you have to consider your own, original ideas to be at least as valuable as the old familiar way. Take a close look at your talents and personality, and think about how you can leverage these to help your customers.

The Value I Received From My Mentor

I only kept the business I had consulted my mentor about for about a year longer. However, the lessons I learned stayed with me, and I continue to implement them in my current business.

The real benefit of a good mentor is not that he or she necessarily reveals secrets that no one has heard of before. The value comes from hearing it from someone who has actually used this information and can point out exactly why you need it right now.

Yan Revzin is the Co-Founder of Fortune Cookie Advertising, a non-traditional and out of home media placement company selling advertising space within fortune cookies at Chinese restaurants throughout the United States.

Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, YEC recently launched BusinessCollective, a free virtual mentorship program.

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