From the January 2004 issue of Startups

A mentor can be an invaluable resource for a budding teen entrepreneur. He or she can do almost anything-from teaching you the tools of your chosen trade to offering advice on legal matters and, in some cases, even serving as a venture capitalist, giving you a financial edge that could make the difference between a dream and a concrete business.

The question is, where can enthusiastic, but inexperienced, young entrepreneurs find their Gandalf or Obi Wan Kenobi?

In some cases, it may be as easy as turning to a family member. Mentors can also be family friends or even respected members of the business community whom you don't yet know. In any case, shed your nervousness and ask for help. As you'll see with these three successful business owners, it could make all the difference.

The Apprentice Route

From the moment he saw one of their light sculptures at a Christmas craft show, Julian Samuels, then just 11 years old, knew artists Burl and Judy Hediger could help him start a business of his own. When he approached the Hedigers about teaching him their craft, however, they were a bit skeptical. It took some time, but Julian finally wore them down and began taking lessons. "Judy would teach me how to make the sculptures on weekends," the young Texas artisan explained.

By the time he was 12, Julian's relationship with the Hedigers had developed into a full-blown mentorship/apprenticeship and Julian had learned the ins and outs of the time-consuming craft: The Hedigers taught him how to develop design ideas and then sketch and draw them to scale. They taught him how to determine whether a design was "sizeworthy," or sturdy, once the metal was welded together, how to determine the amount of metal needed for the job and how to construct a prototype. Once the prototype was constructed, Julian learned how to fit the lights on it and change or re-work the design if problems were discovered.

After a grueling year of working with the Hedigers, Julian was ready to step out on his own, and he started a business called Light Sculptures. The business, in which Julian sells many of his more popular pieces for $29.95 but has had a custom order (for a five-car train) which went for $1,700, got off to such a good start that he was able to finance a second business venture: Tech-Stuff is an Internet-based computer hardware and software sales company.

And Julian, now 23, knows that none of his success would have been possible without help from his mentors, the Hedigers.

The Family Route

K-K Gregory and Jesse Walter may both own clothing businesses, but that's where the similarity ends. K-K, who lives in Bedford, Massachusetts, designs and sells Wristies, fingerless glove-liners that extend past the wrist. Jesse, on the other hand, is a Covina, California, entrepreneur who sells bodyboarding fashions.

The two do have one other thing in common, however. Both were lucky enough to find mentors within their own families.

K-K developed the idea for her product after playing in the snow one day and discovering that the gap between her gloves and coat sleeves allowed frigid air to chill her exposed wrists. After describing her Wristies idea to her mom, who made it for her on the spot, she then tried it out on members of her Girl Scout troop, who told her she had a winner.

Indeed she did, and since the launch of Wristies, sales have snowballed, mostly due to Internet sales and TV appearances. When K-K and her mom appeared on QVC, for instance, they sold $22,000 worth of the product in six minutes.

Through it all, K-K's mom has been her brainstorming partner, her seamstress, her PR person and one of her best salespeople, working right alongside K-K at trade shows and conferences. And don't think K-K isn't grateful. "If you ever have an idea, find somebody to work with who believes in it," she advises.

Jesse is also grateful for his family's assistance, but his help came in the form of his cousin, Al Guerra, a doctor who owns medical clinics and distributes diagnostic equipment. When Jesse told Guerra about his idea of becoming the first clothing outfitter for bodyboarders, Guerra jumped on it, and in 1997, when Jesse was 17, the two became partners in Premiere Clothing America (PCA). Guerra did everything from advise on business decisions to helping Jesse navigate the intricacies of PR and marketing.

But what really helped get PCA started was the venture capital Guerra put up in exchange for the title of partner. He also got a big percentage of the profits until that start-up money was repaid.

"Al gave me the money and helped with the business decisions," Jesse, now 23, explained. And that, he said, gave PCA an edge it wouldn't have had without its mentor.

More Resources
  • Many budding entrepreneurs take advantage of mentors, including 18 girls taking a business class in Puerto Rico. To read more about their story, go to YoungBiz.com
  • Does father (or mother) really know best when it comes to helping you grow your business? Find out at Entrepreneur.com

Amy Fennell Christian, a writer living in Augusta, Georgia, is a freelance editor for YoungBiz.com