I imagine this place called The Startup Forest. Sometimes there are blue skies and sunshine, but other times, it can be dark and scary. There are most definitely paths through the Forest — if only you know how to find them. As I interviewed dozens of successful food entrepreneurs for my book, “Cooking Up a Business,” I realized that the key to finding the way through the Forest is a brilliant mentor. Great insight, but easier said than done: What makes a great mentor want to work with someone?
I was talking with Mary Waldner, the founder of Mary’s Gone Crackers (and preeminent founder in the gluten-free market) when she mentioned her mentee, Janie, yet again. “I make sure Janie doesn’t make the mistakes I did,” Mary says. “She’s the best. I love working with her.”
Wait, isn’t this every newbie entrepreneur’s dream — to be taken under the wing of an established, connected, big-name founder? Janie made that happen, and I wanted to learn how that worked — from all parties involved.
So I called up Janie Hoffman, the founder of Mamma Chia, to get her story alongside Mary’s. How had Janie successfully created and nurtured their relationship? Here’s what worked.
1. Bond over common interests first. Just like you wouldn’t ask someone to marry you on the first date, don’t ask someone to be your mentor in the same sentence as “Hello, nice to meet you.” Janie met Mary at a Slow Money conference, where they talked for ages about their mutual love of tiny, omega-3-packed chia seeds. “Not too many people knew about them, but I wanted to put them in a beverage, and Mary was already using them in her products,” explains Janie. “It helped us create a genuine, real connection.”
2. Ask to make the relationship official — but only once there’s an established bond. A few months (and a few conversations) after they met, Mary invited Janie to her annual Christmas party. By then, Janie knew that they “clicked” and that she could use her wisdom — and so far, Mary and her co-founder Dale seemed eager to help. “I decided to just ask if she and Dale would mentor me as I tried to navigate the world of a startup business,” Janie says. They were thrilled to, and that ask cemented and formalized their relationship.
3. Trust your mentor’s instincts. Industry experts kept saying that Janie’s product was too weird (gelatinous chia seeds are suspended throughout a lightly sweetened drink). “But Mary, like me, thought that chia seeds were going to be big,” says Janie. “And I decided to trust her instincts.” Sure enough, Mamma Chia became one of the top-selling beverages when it was introduced at Whole Foods, and then quickly crossed over into the mainstream channel. And at the same time, it strengthened the mentor bond since Mary knew she was making an impact on Janie’s business.
4. Value (and ask for) both your mentor’s connections and life wisdom. Finally, ask your mentor for the specific help you need: “Mary and Dale coached me through my Whole Foods approach, introduced me to our first distributor and helped me avoid some of the financial challenges they’d faced,” says Janie. And make sure to let the relationship develop on a more holistic level: “Mary and Dale are always reminding me to stay sane and enjoy the ride,” explains Jane. “Mary asks me, ‘Are you doing yoga?’ It’s her way of reminding me to stay balanced.&rdquo
Rachel Mount Hofstetter (@rachelhoffy) is the author of the new, go-to guide to food entrepreneurship “Cooking Up a Business.” The former food editor at O, the Oprah Magazine and Reader’s Digest was so inspired by the entrepreneurs she wrote about that she started her own company, guesterly, which creates custom magazines.