When entrepreneur Rajat Paharia needs advice, he leaves his Redwood City, California, office and walks across the street to find Sunil Singh, CEO of Informance, a company with about 100 employees that makes manufacturing business intelligence software for customers such as Glaxo- SmithKline, Johnson & Johnson and Unilever. Paharia--founder and CEO of Bunchball, a 2-year-old company that creates hosted online games that are licensed to customers including Facebook, NBC Sports and Warner Brothers--also lunches with Singh, 45, to talk business. "There's lots of whining and bitching," jokes Paharia, 37. "You need good, smart sounding boards outside [your company]."
Getting regular, one-on-one feedback from another entrepreneur in a similar industry or stage of growth can reap enormous rewards for your business, from gaining valuable contacts to having someone understand what you're going through. "People who haven't tried to build things under resource poverty don't have the foggiest notion what [the entrepreneur is] talking about," says Jerry White, director of the Carruth Institute for Entrepreneurship at Southern Methodist University. One-on-one peer mentoring "has exactly the same validation as any support group."
Unfortunately, face time in the technology age is increasingly seen as a hassle. "We're losing our face to face, and as entrepreneurs who work alone or run the show, we've got to get it back," says Susan RoAne, a keynote speaker and author of How to Work a Room. She sees verbal conversation as much more productive than online communication. "It's making the time and realizing that it's an investment," RoAne says. "You can help them, and they can help you."
Singh says he's learned more about driving community and brand, two areas where Paharia and Bunchball excel. Paharia, meanwhile, has expanded his knowledge of positioning, hiring and compensation through his conversations with Singh--lessons that come in handy as Bunchball seeks to expand its 19-employee staff. Paharia, whose company expects 2007 sales of more than $1 million, sees great value in his one-on-one peer relationship with Singh. "One, it's just leveraging all the experience, and two, it's other points of view," he says.
Singh, who projects 2007 sales in the tens of millions, agrees. "It's invaluable having people to bounce ideas off of and even just venting," he says. "It's a stressful job."
How to find a peer? When you go to professional events, try to meet new people. Keep your eyes open for another entrepreneur you connect with in terms of company development, sales, your ages and so on. If there's someone you'd trust with details about yourself and your company, ask if he or she would like to meet for coffee or lunch, and have a clear purpose for meeting. The worst a person can say is no, and don't take it personally if they do, RoAne says.
Also keep in mind that some professional groups are geared toward entrepreneurs who meet a specific age and company-size profile--inquire about that before joining a new entrepreneurial organization. Like dating, you'll get out of a peer entrepreneur relationship what you put into it. Says White, "To have a good friend, you've got to be a good friend."
Chris Penttila is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist who covers workplace issues on her blog, Workplacediva.blogspot.com.