From the October 2003 issue of Startups

When Lilia Phleger Benjamin decided to start her own PR business, the digitElle Group, in 2000, she wanted to find mentors but was short on time. So instead of heading out the door to networking events, the Encinitas, California, entrepreneur logged on to the Internet, searching for online support groups.

"It was the best and fastest way to network," says Phleger Benjamin. "I found it was just as effective and more convenient than [offline groups]." E-mail discussion lists helped her get in touch with experienced and knowledgeable professionals, and online groups such as WebSanDiego.org helped Phleger Benjamin learn more about her industry.

To find your own online support network, John Reddish, who mentors start-ups as the founder of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, consulting firm Advent Management International Ltd., suggests checking with national trade and industry associations; small-business networks accessible through SBDCs, TEC and others; and chat and message boards on business publications' Web sites.

To make sure a certain online support group is really worth your time and effort, Reddish advises looking for:

  • Confidentiality: a sense of trust in the group
  • Resonance: Members willing to build relationships
  • Parity: Members sharing common bonds and a simliar level of business maturity
  • Size: No more than 15 members, the number at which group effectiveness seems to top out
  • Ground rules: Rules for frequency and accountability

How will you know you've found the best online support group that suits your needs? "Trial and error," says Reddish. "Keep talking to others even when in a group, as the group dynamic may fizzle. And remember, you may grow at a different rate than others in the group, and you may have to find another [one]." Phleger Benjamin enjoyed the online support experience so much that she and five other women started Techniquelle (www.techniquelle. com) to unite women in art and technology. "It's fun," says Benjamin, 37, who runs the 130-member organization with one of the original co-founders.