At age 26, while slogging through 14 voice mails on her phone, Christina Domecq realized there might be a business in converting audio messages into text. Within a few months, in 2003, she had turned that idea into the start-up SpinVox. The Marlow, England–based voice-to-text service has already been picked up by a dozen carriers globally. Domecq, a 2006 Ernst & Young UK Entrepreneur of the Year, finds that listening to her mentors is a key to her success.

Starting a new business in unfamiliar territory, how did you pull together a network of mentors?

I moved to London on advice from my existing network of mentors in the States and Spain—some of whom have known me since childhood—that the UK was the best place for an entrepreneur in telecommunications to get started. But when I arrived, I didn’t know many people. Those first few months were tough. You start from a very humble position when you know no one. I remember wishing I could fast-forward to a point where I was established.

My cofounder, Daniel Doulton, and I had clear business goals: Launch a service that is easy for the customer to use, and quickly grab as much market share as possible. Both goals were very challenging. Because language is ever changing—think about the shortcuts people use, such as “Soc Gen” for Société Générale and “Man U” for Manchester United—we had to accept a certain degree of human intervention to assist the system as it learned to interpret abbreviations, new proper names, and such. Grabbing market share meant convincing users and carriers alike of the accuracy and lifestyle advantages of the service. To reach these goals, I knew we needed significant access to the wealth base in the UK and an entrée into the marketplace. I couldn’t achieve this without a strong network of mentors.

I looked for mentors who would be external to my business, because I knew that I would need them to be objective and that it would be important to surround myself with people of different strengths. I looked for individuals who had gone through the highs and lows of building a business and could steer me away from the lows. Daniel had his own network in the UK, so he was able to help me with initial introductions, but I also leaned heavily on my non-UK mentors, using their connections to find people who had an affinity for high-growth companies. The mentors and leaders I eventually connected with in the UK were critical to getting SpinVox off the ground.

What do your mentors give you, and what do you give in return?

The mentors I’ve found in the UK understand my drive and passion, and what I look for from them is their levelheadedness. Having a dependable network of people like that is invaluable. When I can’t sleep after an 18- to 20-hour day, and I am agonizing about a crucial business decision, I can always call one of my mentors, even in the middle of the night. I know they will empathize with what I’m up against and will give me the best advice possible.

There’s one clear lesson my mentors have taught me: Don’t diversify. So we do one thing—convert voice to text—and do it well. They have also helped me choose the best talent. All too often, start-ups are cash strapped, so they don’t hire top people, but I wanted to hire the best. A powerful team around you can effect change very quickly; making the right decisions about people is 90% of the game. My mentors also ensure that I stay focused, so I can better communicate with my team and translate my vision.

As for what I give to them: Time, rapport, and trust are critical to a mutually productive mentoring relationship. We have nicely reciprocal relationships, and I think one of the basic reasons is that I listen. When you go to people for advice, they expect you to listen, and they appreciate it when you do.

You mentioned 18- to 20-hour days. Do your mentors give you any advice on how to achieve balance in your life?

Like most of my mentors, in many ways I’m married to my business. So we don’t even talk about balance. We’ve all failed at that.

A version of this article appeared in the May 2008 issue of Harvard Business Review.