Q: How can I find a business mentor to help me start my company?
A: The phrase "business mentor" means different things to different people-from casual relationships to long-term friendships. When people think of mentors, they may think of a retiree they met at their daughter's soccer practice who gave them some pointers on dealing with bankers. They may remember their neighbor who started a business several years ago and whose brain they've picked over the backyard barbecue. They may recall the experienced businessperson who took them under their wing and taught them all about business, customers and relationships-the one to whom they wouldn't think about making a major decision without consulting.
The first two examples describe advisor relationships, while the third describes a mentor. Advisors can be extremely valuable, and you should try to learn all you can from them. Most people are happy to give you an hour or two of their time, particularly if you're clear that this is all you want. Few people will resist this approach: "I've admired what you've accomplished in this field. Would you allow me to take you to lunch and ask you a few questions?" When you get that meeting, remember that the more specific your questions, the more value you'll receive.
A mentor relationship is much deeper, more personal and longer term. A mentor is someone who serves as an example, an advisor, a sounding board and ultimately a friend. That last attribute is very important. A mentor cannot really be effective if they don't truly care for you, and vice versa. Truly effective mentors do what they do for one reason: They want to help you succeed. They aren't working with you to make money or to boost their egos, or to be able to claim volunteer time on their resume. They work with you because they are interested in helping people.
The stereotypical mentor is a gray-haired guru who remembers what life was like when he was in your position and wants to help you avoid some of the mistakes he made. While this undoubtedly describes some mentors, the key is that they have considerably more experience and connections than you have and have been where you are going, business-wise. If you are starting a small service business, you don't want a mentor who is a senior executive at a large manufacturing company-the skills she uses every day will have little to do with the problems you're about to face. You want someone who has started businesses in your industry and who has made many of the mistakes you hope to avoid.
Finding a mentor will be a long process. You can't just go out and recruit someone to be your mentor; you have to let such a relationship develop over time. For starters, just get out there and network. Make a list of the successful people in your community that you admire. Ask them to lunch, or just ask them to meet with you for 30 minutes. Go to luncheons, seminars, talks and conferences. Join your local chamber of commerce and attend their meetings. Join a local Rotary club or Toastmasters organization, meet your fellow members, introduce yourself to the guest speakers, and ask them questions. In just about every city in America, there are business, technology and leadership organizations that are dedicated to helping you meet new people. Join them and network, network, network.
As you meet and work with people, you'll start to develop the business and personal relationships that will move you forward. This is when a mentor can emerge. The process of finding a mentor is less about directly working on it as a problem and more about putting yourself in the position to allow such a relationship to develop.
Keith Lowe is an experienced entrepreneur who is a founder and investor in companies in several industries. Lowe also mentors new entrepreneurs; serves as past chairman of the board for Biztech, a nonprofit high-tech business incubator; and is a co-founder and officer for the Alabama Information Technology Association.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.