There's nothing like having somebody who's been there before to show you the entrepreneurial ropes. Do you need help with your business plan? Want reassurance from someone who's struggled through the same startup challenges you're facing?
When it comes to college entrepreneurship, Alvin Rohrs, president and CEO of Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE), a Springfield, Missouri-based nonprofit, says mentors can share the mistakes they have made and show you how to avoid making those mistakes yourself. Mentors can be anyone--from professors and advisors to local businesspeople. Plenty of universities with entrepreneurial programs put emphasis on mentoring; examples include the Center for Entrepreneurship Program at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University in Tempe.
Brown University is another such school, as student entrepreneur Jason Donahue, 23, knows firsthand. In 2003, Donahue; Eric Shashoua, 23; Samee McDannel, 20; and two other students launched Axon Sleep Research Laboratories in Providence, Rhode Island. They were also matched with three university alumni mentors. One mentor is a sleep expert, another is a marketing expert and the third is a startup expert. Each mentor brings a unique expertise to help the company grow and market the SleepSmart, an intelligent alarm clock that monitors sleep cycles and wakes people from light sleep.
The entrepreneurs raised $250,000 in venture capital and are looking to secure $2.75 million more before they start selling the SleepSmart in 2006.
The ideal relationship between a mentor and an entrepreneur should include a free flow of ideas and real-life checks and balances. Beware of mentors who brag about their success, warns Rohrs. "When selecting a mentor, you want one who wants to help others succeed," he says.
With this in mind, look for a mentor, even if there isn't an official program at your university. Rohrs suggests you start your search with your local SIFE chapter, which often has ties to the local business community.
You should also consider business school professors or local entrepreneurs as possible mentors. Don't be shy--ask them to lunch and explain what you're doing. You'd be surprised at how readily most entrepreneurs will share their wisdom. "I've found very few entrepreneurs not willing to help," says Rohrs.
If your first meeting goes well, ask if you can make it a formal mentoring relationship with meetings in person, over the phone or even via e-mail. Rohrs adds, "Understand that [your mentors] don't have a lot of time, and be prepared with what you want to ask them when you go into your meetings."