If it’s free, does it have value?

Let me start with a confession. Once, many moons ago in my advertising career, I directed a photo-shoot for a client who offered a FREE GIFT. This FREE GIFT was a 3 piece travel luggage set.
We shot the luggage in a room setting, all the pieces on display next to a door as though ready for that next exciting trip away – which could be yours with this FREE GIFT.
The only thing was the suitcases were rather… well… little. So we constructed a three quarter size room set. A smaller room door, a plain carpet, a piece of beading as opposed to a real skirting board and hey presto, instantly larger FREE GIFTS… that would no doubt disappoint when you came to use them in the real world as they were not practical.
Similarly, just last week I received a FREE GIFT for my business in the form of a MP3 Player. It looked great on the brochure and seemingly had all the right whistles and bells until it arrived when we discovered it lacked just one thing a small, but crucial thing; it had no internal memory. You had to go out and acquire its ‘brains’ as it couldn’t think for itself.
And that is where my concern over ‘FREE GIFT Mentoring’ lies. Will it be advice for the real world? Will it be practical, actionable, direction-based and support-giving, drawing on real experiences from successful people? I doubt that will be the case with all 40,000 mentors and that worries me.
Start-up businesses are fragile. They stumble along in the first few months of birth, all new and wobbly and any knockback, wrong decision or bad deal can kill them stone dead. The owner needs good advice to help them avoid those pitfalls, they need hand holding and advice borne from real experience.
Now I’m not saying that all of the 40,000 will not be able to offer this but I would recommend that any business who approaches these mentors thinks carefully about who that person is and which organisation they are representing as many of these mentors will be from IOD, A4E, and other very good organisations.
However, some will be civil servants, who I have no doubt will be very good civil servants, but they may not know an awful lot about setting up a hairdressers, web agency, delivery company etc. 
Then there will be a bunch of FREE mentors who will be from ‘industry’. They will be working accountants, lawyers, bankers, designers, printers, HR professionals and management consultants and guess what? They may recommend to the mentee that they need a new bank account, a shareholders’ agreement, a new website, some new brochures, a health and safety policy, etc.
You see where I am going with this – they have something to sell. The mentoring simply becomes a new business tool for them.
Here comes my second confession. My name is Carl Hopkins and it has been one month since I have ‘mentored’. Over the last three years I have spent time with both individuals and businesses to help them as they start their journeys or because they have lost their way a little.
There are two points that I would like to make clear. One, I never positioned myself as a mentor – others have called me that. Two, I always charge for my time. I often get asked for ‘advice’ and do offer it but if it’s a more structured requirement delivered over one or many sessions, then people have to pay.
It has taken me nearly 30 years to gain this experience that they wish to tap into and I still learn every day. I have had great successes and atrocious failures and that kind of learning comes at a high price to me personally so I see no reason why people shouldn’t pay for that as it may save them thousands of pounds and hours of their in the long term – not to mention the heartache. 
There are many ‘mentors’ out there already and many more heading your way. So, good luck with choosing the right one for you. But as my FREE GIFT TRAVEL LUGGAGE confession or my ‘brainless’ MP3 Player reminds me– don’t believe the glossy pictures and don’t be influenced by the four letter F word – the freebie may not be able to do the job you want.