Inside one founder’s experience with the INCLT Venture Mentoring Service

By Mary Johnson, INCLT VMS Mentee

In building my business, my business has always come last.

Mary Johnson, INCLT Mentee

It doesn’t make a lot of sense, when you think about it. If I want growth and scale in my venture, shouldn’t all my energy be focused on achieving those two goals? 

The short answer is, yes. But it’s not that simple. I run a marketing agency called Brave New Word. We provide content strategy and creation for brands that are looking to make a statement, to become thought leaders in their respective fields, to be brave. And in pulling out all the stops to make our clients sound good, I routinely put Brave New Word last on my list of priorities. 

I know that’s the wrong approach, and yet I also know I’m not alone. Entrepreneurs and small business owners are told this all the time: If you want to grow, you’ve got to work in the business less and on the business more. Figuring out how to do that has always been the challenge. 

If I have learned anything about myself over the past three-plus years as an entrepreneur (and a dozen or so more in journalism), it is this: I need deadlines and accountability to get anything done. And so it would stand to reason that I need some external force holding my feet to the fire when it comes to putting my business first. 

Enter the Innovate Charlotte Venture Mentoring Service. 

In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve come into the INCLT with more than a cursory understanding of the process. For the past few years, I’ve been writing about its efforts, recounting for the broader entrepreneurial ecosystem in Charlotte the impact a team of skilled, seasoned mentors can have on a fledgling organization. And at first, I didn’t think it was for me. I’ve always thought mentorship works best when the mentor/mentee relationship takes shape organically — when you just-so-happen to meet someone who takes a liking to you and your business and offers his or her wisdom for free. I’ve also steered away from situations that promise to put more work on my plate. Most weeks and months, I’m drowning. Do I really need someone else telling me what else I should be doing? 

But 2020 had a way of pushing me, and most others I know, out of our comfort zones. I knew I wanted more from my business. I knew I needed help, and I knew I didn’t want to wait for fate to put the perfect mentor in my lap. So I applied and, a few weeks later, found myself on a Zoom call with four mentors who wanted to know more about Brave New Word. 

The process of putting words around what you’re struggling with is powerful — the process of talking about your goals and big ideas, even more so. And that’s what I found myself doing in that first call. It was part therapy session and part business dissection. The mentors took turns asking probing questions about revenue streams and clients, pricing and services. They asked what was weighing me down and what got me fired up. They asked me to paint a picture of my perfect day in the business — and then challenged me to break down what it would take to bring that day to life. 

When you sign up for the INCLT mentorship program, you don’t choose your mentors; your mentors choose you, based on your business, your challenges and your goals. I had no idea what to expect in that first meeting, and yet I found myself pleasantly surprised at the outpouring of support, the pats on the back, the offers to provide more guidance in particular areas. I’m highly critical of myself — a quality I’ve often considered the secret behind much of what I’ve achieved — but my mentors took a decidedly different approach. They wanted to celebrate my wins as much as they wanted to pinpoint the work that still needs to be done. 

I walked away from that first meeting inspired, with a renewed commitment to dig in and focus on the business. I had a long list of to-do’s, which my mentors quickly walked back to a much more manageable list of two key deliverables for the next time we met. I had no doubt I could carve out the time to give them the effort they were due. 

Then, I went back to my day to day — and those deliverables once again fell to the bottom of my list. 

That’s right: All that inspiration meant nothing when the realities of life as an overworked entrepreneur (and wife and mom of two small kids and dog parent) once again settled over me. And isn’t that so often the case? We read that motivational quote or that bestselling self-help book, and we resolve to be and do better. But without accountability, our best laid plans fall flat. At least they do for me. I’m only as good as the people who are keeping me honest. 

While I fell off the wagon and focused solely on my clients for the next three weeks, the approach of my next mentor meeting snapped me back to reality. I knew I was facing another Zoom call with four experienced, busy leaders who were carving out an hour and a half of their day to make me and my business stronger. I couldn’t show up empty handed. 

So I found the time. I carved out a few hours to give my homework assignments real, intentional brain power. And when my second meeting rolled around, I was ready. More than that, the work I did has legs. It has the potential to focus and hone my business, my client base and our approach to the work we take on. And quite simply, it would not have happened without my mentors — at least not any time soon. 

When you sign up for the INCLT mentorship program, you commit to the program for a year. Some companies stay in it even longer than that, and I can see why. It’s not just the expertise and experience you can leverage; it’s the accountability, the sounding board, the team of people who want the best for you and understand that the path there requires a push to focus on you. 

I’m ready for the next step in my business, and I know I can’t get there alone. Now I don’t have to. 

Stories like Mary’s are what make Charlotte’s entrepreneurial community so strong. It’s an ecosystem built on helping each other in the interest of helping the community as a whole. “All the research shows how important mentorship is to people at all stages of their careers, and founders are no exception. If we want them to succeed, we’ve got to invest in their professional development, starting now,” said Olga Muller, CEO at Kepler Team

INCLT is looking for more founders and mentors to do just that. If you’re an organization in need of help, apply. If you’re a business leader looking to give of your time and expertise, become a mentor today.