Ask any entrepreneur who's hit it big, and you're sure to find a supportive mentor somewhere in his or her past.
Larry Schwarz, 28, is a case in point. He's taken his New York City toy company, Rumpus, from start-up in 1995 to grossing more than $1.5 million in sales in 1998. But he credits his success in part to one of his mentors--a friend's grandmother, who also happened to be cosmetics giant Estee Lauder. "She started her business from nothing," says Schwarz admiringly. "She mixed things in her uncle's garage and went around peddling them to stores, trying to get interviews with buyers on her own, and built it up into an incredible company."
One story especially hits home with Schwarz. "[Estee Lauder] would go to meet with a buyer, and the buyer would say `We have no appointment for you.' So she'd go to retail stores and pour her perfume on the floor. Customers would ask the salespeople `What is that?' and people started asking for her products."
The lesson for Schwarz? "With me, going up against huge toy companies like Mattel and Hasbro, I've got to get out there and be pushy and fight for it."
Sean M. Lyden (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes frequently on motivational, sales and leadership issues. His mentor, prolific outdoors writer John E. Phillips, inspired him to leave his position as a high-school English teacher and pursue his passion as a full-time freelancer.
Finding A Friend
There's no doubt a mentor can help you get over start-up humps and give you the inspiration and advice you need to succeed. But how do you find a mentor who's right for you?
Begin your search by thinking about highly successful people you know. They could be your relatives or--as in Schwarz's case--your friends' relatives or people you've met through networking functions whom you admire and want to emulate.
Next, know what you expect from a mentor. Schwarz suggests looking for someone with these qualities:
1. Has your best interests in mind. Is this someone with whom you feel comfortable sharing sensitive personal and business information? "It's hard a lot of times, especially in [the highly competitive toy] industry, to find people who look out for your best interests," says Schwarz. "If I have an idea for a new product, I don't want to show it to too many people."
2. Offers objective advice. "Look for someone who will actually tell you the truth," Schwarz advises.
3. Understands you. "You have to find someone who understands you, besides what you want them to mentor you on," suggests Schwarz. "In addition to knowing how good your product is or how to enter your industry, [your mentor has] to understand your abilities."
Once you've established a relationship with a mentor, how do you make the most of it? "It really helps when you follow their advice," Schwarz says. "If someone takes time to spend with you and you don't follow their advice at all, they probably won't help you as much [in the future]."
Also, update mentors on your progress. Says Schwarz: "When one of our toys [Monster in My Closet] was picked as one of the `Best Toys of the Year,' I called and told [my mentors]: `Remember when we were having problems with it, and I asked you whether we should do it?' Mentors like seeing the project move from start to finish."
Get to know successful entrepreneurs. How did they rise to the top? What mistakes did they make and how did they overcome their errors? By learning from mentors, you boost your chances of making it big with your business.
Meet your mentor.
If you're new to an area or just breaking into an industry, where can you go to find business leaders who can help you succeed? Check your local newspaper or business journal for a calendar of networking functions sponsored by the following organizations:
- The local chamber of commerce
- Trade or professional associations
- Civic organizations like the Rotary Club or Kiwanis International
- Business referral "networking" groups
(For more on choosing a group to join, see "Biz 101.")
Rumpus, (212) 463-9869, http://www.rumpustoys.com
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