Mentor Notes

Finding a great mentor is crucial, but it takes a lot of legwork. Here are a few tips to get you started.
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This story appears in the March 2004 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Don't take everything your mentor says to heart-you may be getting bad advice. "He told me it would be a terrible mistake for me to start my own business," says Steven Rothberg of his mentor, whom he found through a networking connection.

A lawyer by trade, Rothberg launched, an online career site in Minneapolis for students and recent graduates, in 1996. When he sought guidance from his mentor during startup, "It was the worst advice I'd ever received," recalls Rothberg, 37. "He was a respected businessman, but he'd never been an entrepreneur. He was a great guy-he was just a terrible fit for me."

The mentor's corporate mentality didn't mesh with the kind of entrepreneurial risks Rothberg needed to take. They parted amicably, and Rothberg went on to build a business with sales in the six figures.

A good fit is important for any entrepreneur-mentor relationship, says Tom Kinnear, executive director of the Samuel Zell & Robert H. Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies at the University of Michigan Business School in Ann Arbor. "A good one is hard to find," he says "But [with] almost everybody who makes it, somebody reached out and said, 'I see talent in this person, and I'm going to work with them.'"

Finding the right mentor takes due diligence, but you also need to spend some time with possible mentors in typical bonding circumstances. Go golfing with them, for instance, and see how they interact with people. Do they cheat? Throw clubs? Also, a good mentor will have enough rapport with you to suggest ideas as well as areas of improvement. It may take some time, but Kinnear points out there are many mentors out there willing to help fledgling startups.

Sometimes a former colleague with industry experience can be a good mentor. But if you don't know anyone offhand, try networking groups, university symposiums, industry contacts and your network of friends, family and colleagues. Still, don't be blinded by a person's stellar credentials: They might not be very good mentors because they're autocrats and want it their way. Says Kinnear, "They [may] see their job as building the company, but they don't see their job as building out the next generation of great entrepreneurs."

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