I truly believe that mentors, defined by Dictionary.com as “a wise and trusted counselor or teacher,” are critical for those of us starting businesses. After all, even if you have a degree from a business school, there is nothing like real-world experience to help you navigate the ups and downs of entrepreneurship. When I first graduated from photography school in 2009, I was terrified! It was my first time being in business for myself and my first foray into the world of commercial photography. So I went on the hunt for a mentor. I wanted someone who I could call when I had a question, someone who would offer advice and a listening ear, and someone whose experience in my field could help me find my way. I am going to write down what my search for a mentor was like – because it wasn’t easy – in the hopes that it will inspire others to keep searching! Finding a great mentor (or two or three or more) is invaluable. If you don’t have one, get one!
I especially hoped that I’d find a woman business-owner who would be my mentor, since I think women face different challenges than men in the business word (and in the commercial photography world.) I made a lot of phone calls, I had informational interviews, went to networking events, joined groups on LinkedIn, and reached out to as many other women business-owners as I could find.
Unfortunately, nothing really stuck. I didn’t find anyone who I felt like I truly clicked with – who I really believed would be a “trusted counselor.” After all, most of the women I met were themselves struggling to keep their businesses going, to navigate the man’s world of commercial photography, and to retain their clients in a difficult market. After a year of trying really hard to find a mentor, I still had nothing.
Then a friend suggested I check out SCORE Boston, a free program run by the Small Business Administration, in which you are assigned a counselor (or in my case 2) with whom you meet regularly to discuss your business. My counselors, Paul and Howard, are both retired from the world of commerce, each having achieved great success in their careers. They help me set goals, analyze my finances, develop marketing strategies, and build client lists. They have helped me with my website, my pricing structure, my promotional materials. I meet with them once every one or two months for an hour and their insight has become invaluable. That makes 2 great mentors.
Still in my quest for a female mentor, though, I stumbled upon Ali Brown who is an uber-successful business coach and, although occasionally a little too self-aggrandizing for me, a great inspiration. To work with her directly costs thousands of dollars (she lives a luxurious lifestyle in Southern California), but to access lots of great information on her website is FREE! She offers positive, realistic advice to women entrepreneurs. Her resources help keep me on track and keep me going. Even though Ali doesn’t even know I exist, I still consider her one of my mentors.
Additionally, along my way, I joined the ASMP, an association for professional photographers (again desperate to reach out to people and build my network.) Though I hadn’t found much of interest from ASMP, this winter they launched a mentoring program (um, hello!) called Mutual Mentoring Groups. You’re assigned a group of 5 other photographers – all different from you – with whom you meet twice a month. During those meetings, everyone gets the chance to talk about a challenge or a success or whatever is on their mind and get feedback from the group. I am in a wonderful group with a diverse range of talent. We’ve had 3 meetings so far and another one on Monday. It’s so comforting to know that I have a dedicated group of people, within my industry, who I can talk to. These people get it, they have been there, and they have new ideas for facing the same challenges.
Finally, as I continue to grow as an event photographer, I have begun building a relationship with one of Boston’s premiere event photographers. He actually approached me after attending an event that I was photographing. He complimented me on my work and said that he’d like to help be get better. Um, okay. I said, “Yes, I will show you my work and accept your feedback if it will help me become a better photographer, reach more clients, and cover larger events.” I can tell that he is going to be a great mentor and will offer a lot of insight specific to event photography, which is exactly what I need.
So here I am, in my third year of business, finally finding myself surrounded with talented, experienced, and professional mentors. I have different mentors for different aspects of my business. I have people I can call, email, websites full of resources, and regular opportunities to discuss the challenges of having your own business. Like I said, if you don’t already have a mentor – no matter what field you’re in – consider reaching out to some people and finding one. Finding great mentors does take work, but it truly pays off in the end.