The vast majority of firms in New Zealand are small to medium enterprises, and a new virtual business mentoring scheme is helping them to grow in this Delta-beset world.

Business Mentors NZ chief executive Sarah Trotman is clear on why so many company leaders seek guidance from experienced peers.

“Many new businesses are started by experts in their fields,” she says. “The owner may be an excellent dentist or engineer, but that doesn't mean they also know how to fill in a GST report or manage staff. Running a business is a steep learning curve. A business mentor can help you flatten that curve.”

Since the covid pandemic hit this country in March last year, there’s been a dramatic increase in requests for business guidance via the likes of Zoom and Facetime. 

Trotman says virtual mentoring means a business can tap into a wider range of mentors. “We currently have an inventor in Invercargill, for example, who’s being mentored by a digital specialist in Auckland. That couldn’t happen before. People want help pivoting to digital. They want new ideas to help them leverage the business they’ve got. They want a sounding board – a mentor to say, ‘It’s going to be okay, but you have to confront the realities of the new business world.’”

New Zealand can be looked on as a nation of small and micro businesses. Last year, there were about 530,000 SMEs here, representing 97% of companies. They employ nearly a third of all Kiwi workers and generate more than a quarter of the country’s economic output.

Last year’s  5000 new business registrations represented the biggest jump in five years. It’s believed that the covid lockdowns gave people time and motivation to look for alternatives to their pre-pandemic employment.

Business mentor Amanda Mills, an Aucklander, began advising New Zealand companies online while she was in Canada. “Our family was on a travel break – and we got trapped overseas by the pandemic. I thought, I may as well do something useful, and reached out to BMNZ.”

Now back in Auckland, she juggles business mentoring with her life coaching business. “Ninety per cent of my business mentoring is still virtual. It can add value. Say, for example, a client is really overwhelmed by a big task that needs to be broken down into digestible actions. They might benefit from weekly video-call check-ins, to keep the momentum up. Virtual mentoring makes this process easier.

“There’s been a real mind shift about remote services,” Mills says. “During the first lockdown, everyone was frozen – like a possum in the headlights. But during the second lockdown, clients said things like, ‘I don’t want to waste this time. What can we do now to add value to our business?’ Some did virtual staff training, others did an inventory stocktake, or renegotiated contracts.”

Business mentor Amanda Mills. Photo: Supplied.


Since it was founded in 1991, BMNZ has worked with more than 70,000 enterprises, including entrepreneurs, and not-for-profits. Its partners include New Zealand Trade & Enterprise, Callaghan Innovation Regional Business Partnership Network, Massey University Business School, local councils, and corporate sponsors, notably ASB Bank.

BMNZ was founded by Bill Hall and Dr Grahame Craig of Hallmark International, which later became Woolrest. The concept of mentoring grew and went nationwide when Sir James Fletcher, of Fletcher Construction, joined as a Trustee shortly after the organisation was founded. “They felt big business needed to support emerging businesses and smaller businesses, because they are the backbone of our economy,” says Trotman.

The 1941 volunteer mentors now on the books have either broad business experience or skills in a specific area, such as digital marketing. The SME owners or “clients” who tap into this expertise pay $295 to work with a business mentor (or mentors) for up to 12 months. 

Mentors are not paid – it’s a labour of love. Trotman – a former mentor herself – explains how it works: “Most mentors spend about an hour a month with each business owner, or client, but it can be more. You’re not a fairy godmother or guardian angel doing the actual work for them, you’re inspiring them to roll up their sleeves, setting the standard for what needs to happen, and showing how to break an overwhelming task into practical, actionable steps.”

Call for young business mentors

You might assume most business mentors are retirees eager to do something useful with their lifetime of experience. But it’s not so. Some are in their 20s and fizzing with enthusiasm to share digital skills or social media expertise. To put a figure on it, 28% of the current mentors have specialist knowledge in social media and online marketing, and 23% have a background in technology, including systems and equipment.

Enter Breanna “Bre” McQuade. Still in her early 20s, she’s the operations manager/kaiāwhina of Business Lab, a Nelson-based company that specialises in digital engagement, including tools and methods.  

Digital engagement mentor Bre McQuade. Photo: Supplied.


In this capacity she runs training sessions for BMNZ mentors. All sessions are delivered via Zoom. McQuade firmly believes younger people can be business mentors. “Definitely – 110%,” she says. “Maybe a business owner wants to tap onto a younger person for specific advice like digital support. Or maybe they want insight into how to engage with younger customers. You don’t have to be an expert in everything to be a business mentor – you can ‘stay in your lane’ or bring what you know. It might be something practical, such as how to set up a business bank account. But it’s also valuable to have mentors with life experience, who ask open-ended questions to help clients chart the future growth of their business.”

McQuade is also hyper-enthusiastic about the possibilities of virtual mentoring – especially for rural regions. “Our interactive sessions let mentors explore virtual tools like Zoom Whiteboard. Everyone can write or draw on this whiteboard, like they’re in the same room. Mentors get really excited. They see how useful these tools can be to them.

“Training used to be region by region, but now you have people from all over Aotearoa in one session,” she says. “Mentors find this very stimulating. A mentor might ask, ‘How can I ensure my client’s taking action if I can’t go around to their business in person?’ We’ll ask other mentors to share their strategies. We learn from each other.

“Mentors get excited because they see how valuable their work is – and they feel part of a community.”

Rural connectivity and virtual mentoring

Connectivity and community are also top of mind for Amokura Panoho, programme manager for the society that organises the Māori performing arts festival Te Matatini and a director at Auckland Unlimited, Auckland Council’s economic and cultural agency. With decades of experience as a trustee on marae land corporations and working for government agencies, she trains other BMNZ mentors in the Māori worldview, with the idea of opening up business opportunities. 

In 2018, the asset base of the Māori economy was worth $68.7 billion. While 36% of this still comes from traditional areas such as agriculture, fishing and forestry, Māori-owned businesses are diversifying. “We see the rangatahi developing businesses in new areas like media, fashion or graphic design,” says Panoho. “They’re more confident about being entrepreneurs.” 

BMNZ trainer Amokura Panoho. Photo: Scottie McKinnon.


She regards virtual business mentoring as a way to support such emerging businesses – and the enterprises they work with. “The Māori worldview stresses purpose, place and profit. Business almost has a social-enterprise perspective, in that profit comes from a community purpose. Māori see land- or water-based assets as an intergenerational asset. 

“A lot of Māori businesses have a 100-year plan. They ask, ‘What can we do today to be good ancestors tomorrow?’ They look at how much value is created for the whānau and community, with jobs, education and training.

“Covid has highlighted the concept of food sovereignty – your ability to feed your people. We realised we’re not in the supply chain enough. It’s not just Māori businesses, but all businesses in New Zealand. We lose control when the milk leaves the farm gate. So there’s new interest in expanding into logistics, trucking, warehousing. There’s new interest in adding value.”

It’s easy to see what clients get from business mentoring, but what do the volunteer mentors get from it? 

Panoho sees it as a conversation between equals, who benefit from each other’s experience. “Reciprocity is a strong concept in Māori business. Before we had currency, we bartered, which is trading goods of equal value. For a business relationship to succeed, you must build mutual trust, and nurture it long term. You may not get anything immediately, but it will eventually pay off.”