From the September 2001 issue of Startups

Whether you're learning how to write a business plan or simply honing your management skills, it's always a good idea to consult a mentor before and after start-up. And while mentoring has been going on since the Middle Ages, most mentorship now goes beyond basic training and counseling. Mentors are recommending entrepreneurs to clients, setting up booths for them at trade shows and giving them access to sales teams.

"If one of your needs is to market yourself, you can get mentoring help [for] that," says Dr. Linda Phillips-Jones, a psychologist and mentoring consultant with The Mentoring Group, a Grass Valley, California, mentoring firm. "Your mentoring network will market and sell you to their friends. Having a mentor is a great self-marketing tool."

For Jaevon White, founder of Sacramento Biomedical Services, the minority mentoring program at the University of California in San Francisco became his Sacramento, California, company's first sales and marketing vehicle. "The school let the biomedical companies know about us," says White. "I'd been working as a biomedical engineer for years, and when I notified the school, they linked me up with servicing contracts with larger companies that bought their equipment."

Finding a mentor is easier than ever. The SBA and the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) offer programs and classes, and most colleges and universities now have mentoring centers. But according to Phillips-Jones, informal mentorships are often more effective than formal group programs.

Whether you choose to sign up for a program or simply enlist the services of a friend in the industry, Phillips-Jones suggests you spend at least six months to a year with your mentor: "Less than six months, not much happens, and any more than that, the mentor sort of gets tired of the role, and both parties need to move on."

Before you choose a mentor, do a self-assessment of your own strengths and weaknesses. Find a mentor who specializes in the areas where you lack expertise. And don't just call someone up and ask them to mentor you. "They'll panic and run," says Phillips-Jones. "It sounds like too big of a job. But if you can go up to a person and say, 'I'm having trouble in this area; can you help?'-that's not scary."

NEXT STEP
To find a mentoring program that suits you, start by contacting local colleges and universities. Even if their programs aren't what you're looking for, they might be able to help you locate an industry veteran willing to take you under his or her wing.