Chomping at the bit to get your business going? Although it's difficult to wait, you should get as much advice as possible in the pre-start-up phase before diving in. As most successful entrepreneurs will tell you, information is priceless. Their advice? Find a mentor to guide you through the "dos" and "don'ts" of entrepreneurship--that way, you can bound ahead without making too many bad calls.
If you make the mistake of trying to go it alone, you could wind up as another statistic. In fact, if more entrepreneurs hooked up with mentors in the start-up phase, we'd see fewer business fatalities, according to Jerry F. White, director of the Caruth Institute at the Cox School of Business, an entrepreneurial center at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "A qualified mentor can show a start-up how things work in 'Entrepreneur Land,' saving them time and money in the bargain," White says.
Rob Adler agrees. If it weren't for his mentor, Jeff Parker, Adler wouldn't have been able to successfully launch CCBN.Com, a Boston Internet company that helps businesses communicate with shareholders. The relationship between the two men started five years ago when Adler was a 28-year-old MBA student at Harvard. Parker, now 54, was a successful entrepreneur and venture capitalist who helped and often funded the start-ups of many young entrepreneurs.
Having heard good things about Parker and two other possible mentors, Adler cold-called them to set up initial information interviews. Of his interviews, Adler remembers a special chemistry between Parker and himself. Their relationship steadily evolved to the point where Parker helped Adler launch CCBN.com in 1997.
Finding Your Match
Adler and Parker's mentoring relationship is not uncommon. Similar mentoring relationships are forged every day. The results are often a successful enterprise as well as a lifelong friendship.
Anne Donnellon, an associate professor of management at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, knows firsthand how valuable a mentor can be. Having been a mentor as well as a conduit to other mentors and "mentees," she's seen the value of these relationships in action.
Before beginning your search for a mentor, make a list of the skills and expertise you need, advises Linda Phillips-Jones, principal consultant of The Mentoring Group, a Grass Valley, California, business consulting company. Rather than go off half-cocked, have a personal vision. Make a list of your needs and logical matches. For example, if you need advice on pricing a product, find a mentor who's a comptroller, accountant or CFO. If you want to identify vendors, seek a mentor who's a supplier or distributor. If you need help hiring employees, make a match with a human resources manager or consultant.
"In addition to identifying the skills, knowledge or opportunities you need, think specifically of what a mentor could do to help you achieve your goals," says Phillips-Jones. Ideally, mentors show you how to function on your own.
When you're ready to seek a mentor, invest time and effort into finding the right person. The idea is to find someone who not only has the right credentials, but whom you can work with as well. "There are organizations and community groups that [can help with this]. The SBA, for example, has a program that matches mentors and mentees," says Andrea Silbert, executive director of the Center for Women and Enterprise, a Boston-based educational organization that provides business advice to women. "By doing it yourself, however, you control the whole process."
Don't be embarrassed to knock on doors. Donnellon advises being aggressive about making the appropriate contacts. The good news is plenty of mentors out there are willing to help you launch your enterprise--it's your job to find them and negotiate a time to meet. "Most people are flattered that you deem them a valuable information source, and they [enjoy] helping someone get their business started," says Silbert.
Where do you find mentors? Typically, they're right under your nose. Sometimes they're people you'd least consider, such as relatives, acquaintances, even friends.
Refer again to your list of needs and the kind of help you require, suggests Phillips-Jones. Next to each need, write the names of all the people you know who seem competent in that area. Your list might include your last boss (actually the first person you should approach), past managers (even those in different locations and organizations), and those peers whom you admire, respect and trust.
Don't stop there. "Expand your list," says Phillips-Jones. "Think of anyone who might be helpful, even for a one-time information-sharing exchange."
Although you shouldn't get uptight about approaching people you don't know, you should prepare as if you were facing a job interview. "Find out all you can about the person's work, special interests and interaction style," Phillips-Jones advises. "If you know someone who can put in a good word for you, ask for the favor."
Often, you have no choice but to follow Adler's lead and simply call high-profile candidates who have mentoring potential. Adler took his chances and hoped for the best. He was lucky--out of three contacts, he found the person who met his parameters. "If first tries don't work, find other people and try again," Adler says. "Persistence pays off."
You may be able to meet potential mentors at such business-related events as conventions, trade shows, conferences and networking groups. If you're open and friendly, you never know where you might stumble across someone with mentor qualifications. The more active you are in your industry, the better your chances of meeting valuable contacts who are potential conduits to other people.
Forging a Relationship
Once you've identified a few candidates, the first critical meeting should involve nothing more than information-sharing so you can get to know each other and determine whether the chemistry is right. During that first meeting, be direct. "Be as specific as you can about what you'd like from this person," says Phillips-Jones. "Keep your request simple though--for example, 'I'm thinking of offering these things to the customer. I'd really like to know what you think.'"
But finding the right person is only the beginning. Before you begin working together, Phillips-Jones urges you to evaluate yourself as a prospective mentee. "It takes a specific attitude to get the most out of a mentoring relationship," she says. "You have to accept honest feedback and criticism."
Ideally, the relationship ought to be fluid, flexible and open. "Be ready to learn, and take direction and criticism," Adler says. "You must be comfortable enough with yourself and the other person to put your ego aside."
Play by the mentor's rules. Mentors are busy people, which means they're fitting you into their packed schedules. "If they want to meet with you at 6:30 a.m. for a breakfast meeting, it's up to you to be there on time," says White.
White estimates he gives 150 hours each year, or three hours per week, to mentoring start-up entrepreneurs. "Once I set a time, I expect the entrepreneur to be there," he says. "If the [mentee] balks or constantly tries to change the time, it tells me he or she isn't committed to the relationship."
How much time should you expect from your mentor? It could be as little as an hour each month or as much as an hour per week. And no matter what the time parameters are, there must be an agenda, including something to accomplish at each meeting. The more focused the relationship is, the better.
"Mentors often give entrepreneurs a task or project to complete in order to learn a critical business lesson," says White. "It's up to the mentee not to waste the mentor's time. When the relationship is working productively, both people are reaping benefits. The mentee is learning and improving his or her business, while the mentor is fine-tuning his or her training techniques."
Don't take advantage of the relationship, stresses Phillips-Jones. "From the onset, there should be a set time limit," she explains. "Typically, it's six months to a year, but it can be as little as three months if the mentor is extremely busy."
Finally, throughout the first critical two years of start-up, Donnellon urges entrepreneurs to build several mentor relationships. "It's a myth that one mentor will be able to meet all your needs," says Donnellon. Depending on the issues, one mentor might solve your financial problems, another might answer your distribution questions, and still another might coach you on finding technical solutions (networking your business, installing and mastering software to manage your inventory and so on). As your needs change, so will your mentor requirements.
And, who knows--in five years' time, some eager entrepreneur with a super idea might call you and ask you to be his or her mentor. Then you can take well-earned satisfaction knowing you not only profited from your mentor relationships, but that you also passed on some of that hard-earned knowledge to others.
Three Strikes . . . Well, You Know
Linda Phillips-Jones, president of The Mentoring Group, offers a few important "don'ts" in building a successful mentoring relationship.
1. DON'T be desperate or apologetic in seeking help. If you seem needy or oversell yourself, a prospective mentor will probably think you're too big a risk.
2. DON'T give up easily. Some mentors are impressed by prospective mentees who are persistent. It demonstrates both their self-confidence and commitment.
3. DON'T wait too long after your prospective coach shows early signs of interest. Get the help you need before he or she commits to something or someone else.
- Virtually every city in the United States offers mentoring programs--all you have to do is look around. Start by making inquiries at your local chamber of commerce. Many churches, synagogues and fraternal organizations offer mentoring opportunities; college alumni organizations often pair start-up entrepreneurs with graduates running successful businesses. Professional and trade organizations, conferences, trade shows and conventions also provide opportunities to connect with potential mentors.
- If you're a woman, you'll find organizations in many cities provide business advice to local entrepreneurs. Those offering mentoring opportunities to women nationwide include Catalyst Organizations and SBA's Office of Women's Business Ownership. Another program is the Women's Network for Entrepreneurial Training Mentoring Program, which matches experienced women business owners with women in the start-up phase for a yearlong program.
Bob Weinstein is the author of 10 books and is a frequent contributor to national magazines.