Nancy Wurtzel

Article Summary:

Guidelines for finding and utilizing a small business mentor.

The Small Business Mentor

As a small business owner remember that it is okay to ask for help. Asking for assistance is nothing to be embarrassed about, and it often opens doors and presents new, unexpected opportunities.

Most highly successful entrepreneurs report they asked for help from many different sources as they found their footing in the business world. One of the most effective ways to get professional help is through a business mentor -- someone who has achieved success and "mentor" or teach you.

What exactly is a business mentor? Webster defines a mentor as a "wise and trusted counselor." From a small business standpoint, a mentor should be someone who will provide guidance and advice. You will want to select a mentor who has achieved a certain level of business success and is willing to share their experience and expertise.

Your mentor should also be a person you can relate to and someone you want to emulate. On the flip side, your mentor should never dominate or take control of your business. If you sense this happening, then this mentor is not the right match for you and your business.

LOCATING THE RIGHT MENTOR
How can you find a business mentor? Connect with individuals who are enjoying success. Start by asking other small business owners if they have a mentor. Be proactive in your search.

  • Take part in local networking groups
  • Read newspapers and business journals
  • Search online
  • Attend seminars and conferences

It can help if the potential mentor is in a similar or complimentary line of work, but this is not absolutely necessary.

When you have identified a potential mentor, then get ready to make your pitch. Ask the business owner if he or she has ever mentored and if they have an interest. Most will be flattered.

However, keep in mind that successful business owners are very busy people, so have an action plan when you approach the potential mentor. You should be prepared to tell the person what you expect from a mentor relationship and how it might benefit both of you.

CHECK OUT THE SCORE PROGRAM
In case you are not aware of it, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) has a website that can offer great information and support for your business.

In particular, the SBA's SCORE program is a terrific program for anyone looking for advice or a mentor. SCORE matches up successful former business executives with those just starting out. You can check them out at their home website at: http://www.score.org/

The general SBA website is considerably larger and has all sorts of valuable information, including business regulations and legislation, financing, general small business advice and an online library. They offer small-business oriented seminars in major cities across the country. Some seminars are free while others charge a nominal fee, but you must register ahead of time regardless of any fees. These seminars would be the ideal place to connect with potential mentors.

The SBA site is located at http://www.sba.gov/

If you still can't identify an appropriate mentor, then consider hiring a "mentor consultant" on a project basis or for an hourly fee. This upfront investment can be well worth it in the long run.

MENTORING: THE NEXT STEP
What do you do once you have found your mentor?

Start by simply spending time together. Pay attention, ask questions, take notes, pick his or her brain, observe how your mentor operates and thinks. In short, be a sponge! Over time you will begin to see some business patterns emerge.

These patterns are an important part of your mentor's business formula. See what parts of that formula will apply to your own small company. How can you adapt these principles and make them work for you?

For instance, take Sandra, an enthusiastic entrepreneur who just launched her own marketing consulting business with the help of Paul, an experienced business person. Sandra marveled at Paul's ability to generate new business. He always seemed to attract new business, yet he never really seemed to be selling.

When Sandra mentioned this observation to Paul, he laughed and said that she had it all wrong, "I'm always selling!"

"Always selling?" Sandra seemed confused. "Absolutely," replied Paul, "A successful business person is always focused on sales."

"But effective selling is much more than just a sales pitch," he continued. "It involves doing your homework, being confident, offering excellent customer service and keeping your word. I may not look as though I'm selling, but it is always on my mind and marketing my services is the end result of everything that I do," he added.

Then the mentor challenged Sandra to come up with at least 25 ideas on how to market her company and its services. With her mentor's help, she was able to come up with more than three dozen ideas. The key to this mentor/mentoree relationship was that the older, wiser mentor did not simply tell Sandra what to do. He shared his experiences and then helped her tailor that experience to fit her own business. Sandra learned and grew and the ideas were hers.

MENTORS PROVIDE CONTACTS, ADVICE
What else can you learn from your mentor? Generally, use your mentor as a sounding board. Share ideas and dreams.

Make sure you don't waste time with pie-in-the-sky fantasies. Do your research so that you can discuss well-thought out ideas with an action plan. Find out if the mentor thinks you are on the right track and how you might improve and refine the plans.

Undoubtedly, your mentor will be able to give you some solid advice. Perhaps he or she has business contacts that might be helpful. Or, your mentor can guide you on the right path by providing names of a good consultant or business vendor.

Take Robert as an example. Robert has operated his own business for two years, but he is floundering and in need of some professional financial help.

Through a local networking group, he meets a successful small business owner. Although their two companies initially seem unrelated, Robert quickly learns that they have quite a bit in common. His mentor listens to Robert's business concerns and recommends an excellent, yet affordable accountant and a tax attorney. Through these professionals, Robert is able to secure two small business loans and even a grant. Both will help him expand his business.

A few weeks later, Robert needs a printer for a direct response flyer he is producing. He picks up the phone and calls his mentor for a suggestion. Sure enough, he gets the names of three different printing companies to call for bids. And, his mentor even had some excellent suggestions for the flyer.


IS SUCCESS CONTAGIOUS?
Can success be contagious? The answer is yes, and if you spend enough time with the right mentor, you will find that the success will indeed start to "rub off" on you.

It won't happen overnight and you must be open to new ideas and concepts that your mentor will teach you. But if you really view your mentor as a blueprint to success, and you use your time together wisely, then you can't help but start to feel that success creeping into your own business.

Nancy Wurtzel is the founder and owner of All About Baby, an online store located at www.allbaby.com. All About Baby offers more than 300 personalized and memorable baby gifts for young children. The site also features interesting and helpful child-related content. Ms. Wurtzel has over 25 years of marketing and communications experience. She consults with small businesses seeking to enter the marketplace or grow their existing e-commerce business.

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