Guiding Light

Help From Your Peers

But what you really want is somebody in the trenches with you, right? There are plenty of peers who are willing to share their wisdom and introduce you to important players in your industry.

Not to beat a dead horse, but the chamber or an SBDC could tell you what's out there locally. Or just search the Web, where groups abound, like TechExecs, a Houston-based peer network group for entrepreneurs, execs and investors in early-stage tech companies; and the Community Development Corporation of Long Island, which offers numerous programs to low-income entrepreneurs, including seminars on finding capital. Also, see if your industry has a trade organization that might help you.

Start-Up Help

Just starting out? Read Cool Aid for 10 places to find free start-up help.

No matter how niche-oriented your business is, you might be surprised by what's out there. For instance, the Fabless Semiconductor Association in Dallas provides a networking group for fabless semiconductor companies and their suppliers-with an emphasis on helping start-ups. Its venture capital advisory board offers details on practices and trends; its "Know Network" answers members' questions about the industry.

"If I'd known how helpful networking groups are, I would have started my business earlier," says Ron Dresner, 40-year-old CEO and president of Your PR Department LLC in Farmington, Connecticut. After a lengthy career in mostly radio, Dresner began his business in 2000 with $25,000. Today, his company is doing well enough to support three employees. The first place Dresner turned to for advice was his chamber of commerce. After that, he approached almost every group he could find-which is how he found NEXT Business, a nonprofit in Glastonburg, Connecticut, that helps its members get to the next level. Only entrepreneurs are allowed in. And you do have to apply or be invited, but membership is free. Dresner was invited into the group through a contact he made at another networking function. He says he leaves each meeting with about 15 new business cards-and often, that leads to a new client.

Help From the Academics
You could go back to school for free help. There are 140 active Small Business Institutes located at universities nationwide, says Bruce Kemelgor, director of the Small Business Institute at the University of Louisville in Kentucky.

Every year, the Small Business Institutes help entrepreneurs for weeks at a time, often daily-and for free. "These are [entrepreneurs] who are struggling to get going beyond that first year," says Kemelgor. "We go out and work alongside [the entrepreneurs], like conducting market and research studies. We'll do accounting, financial and collection problems, cash-flow problems-and we don't just do one thing. We usually try to address two to three needs the client has."

But there is one caveat-and this is the guiding principle at every Small Business Institute, says Kemelgor. The entrepreneur must "have genuine problems that could be resolved with the expertise of the students and myself. I get requests from entrepreneurs who are lazy or don't have enough time," he says. "They'll ask 'Would you write a business plan for me? I can't get around to it.'" Well, neither can Kemelgor. He wants to help start-ups, but he wants his students to benefit, too. So if you have a genuine need for some added brainpower that can fix a thorny problem, then a Small Business Institute is the place to go.

Group Effort

"Isolation is probably the most common problem of every entrepreneur," says Larry Kesslin, president of Let's Talk Business Networks, a New York City peer group. Membership costs between $3,000 and $5,000 per year--but their services are extensive. If all you can afford is pizza every Friday night with like-minded entrepreneurs, here are tips for forming a peer group:

  • How many should join? "Between eight and 12 people works best," Kesslin recommends. "If a few can't make it one week, there's still a minimum number that can keep the group going. And you're never going to love everybody, [but] you need to have buddies. There's going to be at least one person you like, and that's important."
  • Who can join? Kesslin advises they have at least the same experience and revenues as you, and preferably be further along. "You want to be the smallest fish in a group with different skill sets," he says. If everyone has the same opinions and ideas, then you're not going to learn much from each other.
  • What should our objective be? "Everything will be personal," says Kesslin. "You might want to get rid of isolation [or] create strategies." Just make sure you're able to learn and grow from the group.
  • How long should the meetings be? "I've conducted meetings that have run two to three hours," says Kesslin. "But the most important thing is doing them regularly. At minimum, you should meet quarterly."
  • What should dues be? "It's up to each individual," explains Kesslin. "I've seen groups work where they don't charge anything. And I've seen them not work where they're charging 10 grand. Money isn't the issue."

Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.

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This article was originally published in the August 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Guiding Light.

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