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Thoughts on mentoring

  • Words: Andy Clarke

After last week’s episode of Unfinished Business, Laura Kalbag wrote two good posts on mentoring.

It all started when Laura received a project enquiry, a small project with a budget to match and one that Laura knew wouldn’t be good business for her. Laura decided to offer the project to students, graduates or new freelancers, for whom the project might be better suited. But not just that, Laura offered to mentor them during the project.

Design/dev students: I have a friend wanting a small, creative site (paid). I was thinking I might mentor the project. Interested? Email me!

My initial reaction when Anna mentioned Laura’s idea on Unfinished Business was that I loved it and over the last couple of days, I’ve thought quite a bit about what might be involved and what the potential pitfalls might be.

What Laura’s suggesting isn’t as straightforward as you might at first think because there are so many facets to commissioning and producing a project of any size and at at any cost, some of them not so obvious.

Put yourself in my shoes as the person who receives the initial enquiry and then decides that the project would be a better fit for a student, graduate or new freelancer.

Think for a moment how you might suggest Laura’s approach to the prospective client. Would you say;

Your low budget means that this project is better suited to a talented student or someone just starting out on their career?

You’d have to be extremely tactful to avoid causing offence because no one likes to think that they’re being ‘cheap.’ Add to that the fact that just because a prospective client has a low budget, does not mean that they can’t afford to pay more. They may have simply underestimated the cost of professional work or have suggested a low budget in an attempt to pay as little as possible.

Suggesting they work with a junior — I’ll call students, graduates or new freelancers ‘juniors’ from now on — because of a lack of money could leave a bad taste and is potentially demeaning to both client and junior. That’s why I think it’s better to leave money out of the discussion altogether and say something like:

For projects like yours, we like to involve junior designers and developers to help them gain experience and a foothold in our industry.

I think many small business owners would relish the opportunity of spending their money not only on a website but on helping a junior to kick start their career. If things go well, there’s the opportunity for everyone to gain a great deal of value. The client gains a reasonably priced provider while the junior gains an important source of, hopefully regular and reliable, income. I also know from first and second-hand experience how hard it is to recruit new talent. The experience a junior can gain could be incredibly important to their future success.

I imagine that some clients will have serious doubts. At the very least they’ll be concerned that their money will be well spent and they’ll get the result they’re looking for. That’s where Laura’s idea of a mentor, a person with greater experience who will help guide the project should help enormously to allay any fears. It’s important however to remember that there’s a great deal of difference between mentoring and taking responsibility for a project. More on that in just a minute.

Then there’s selecting the right junior for the right project. Getting the match right is crucial for several reasons. A successfully completed project is important not just in itself but because someone you recommend says a lot about you, your judgement and whether a client can trust either. Personally, I need to know someone and their work very well indeed before I’m prepared to recommend them. That’s why, if students are involved, I think that it’s their tutors, those who know them best, who should make the final selection.

(This year I’ve decided not to speak at conferences and instead to lecture at universities including Ulster, Manchester Metropolitan University and Winchester School of Art at University of Southampton. (I’ve got to know Manchester Metropolitan University pretty well over the last few years and when we host workshops in Manchester, we always give a third of our tickets to MMU for students to attend.) Because of that, I know I’d feel more comfortable if they helped with getting the best match.)

With the match and introductions made, it’ll be important to define responsibilities and set correct expectations as it would on any commercial project. That means that due diligence should be carried, contracts must be signed, payment terms agreed and deposits paid. After all, it’s important for the client to get everything they’ve agreed to pay for, but equally as important for the junior to be protected from an ill-defined brief and potential scope creep.

Who will ultimately be responsible if things don’t go according to plan? Would it be me as the mentor and referrer? Would I be liable? Not unless I’ve underwritten the project, but that defeats some of the reasons for a client working with a junior. Would it be a University? Unlikely. So if responsibility falls to the junior, as it should if he or she is to get real world experience, then it’s more important than ever that universities develop students’ business as well as their creative and technical skills.

Working with a junior should be about more than finding a way for clients with smaller budgets to pay less. In my mind, most important of all is that juniors gain valuable commercial experience that will help them when they leave university and as their careers develop. That’s why the mentoring part of this approach will be be so valuable.

So I’m left with a few important thoughts from Laura’s excellent suggestion:

  • As such a mentoring scheme will be new to many people, including mentors, juniors and clients, everyone would benefit from these schemes having a set structure.

  • Mentors should preferably run schemes in association with a school or university who can help select the right junior for a project.

  • Defining roles and responsibilities through contracts is as important as ever, possibly more so, so that juniors start working with the right approach to business.

Overall, I think that Laura’s suggestion has a lot of merit. I know that I’d be happy to help students in this way and I’ll be talking to my friends at universities over the next few weeks about how we can take the idea forward.


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