Mentoring Tips

Finding a mentor can be a challenge for small business managers and entrepreneurs. Often the owner of a small firm is running a business, but doesn't have the experience to understand everything from accounting, hiring and payroll taxes to human resources issues and more.

Some basic common sense may help a small business owner, but sometimes even that's in short supply when it comes to certain topics.

Susan Bowen opened one of the first yoga studios in Rockville, Md., three years ago after 15 years as a high-paying executive selling information technology systems.

Susan Bowen, founder of Thrive Yoga in Rockville, Md. (Photo courtesy of Susan Bowen)

Her job switch was dramatic, and although she felt she was business savvy, her number one piece of advice for fellow entrepreneurs is to find a mentor.

Bowen's strategy was to reach out to others with expertise in her newly chosen field, fortify contacts with former mentors and turn to professionals for help.

Before she opened her shop, she took classes at a yoga studio that was located "far enough away that it was not competition" and soon befriended the owner. She asked him if she could interview him and he agreed to her request that he become her mentor.

"Locating a business that's like yours is important to establishing your own business, but it has to be a little bit different," she advises.

She also went to one of her mentors at one of her first jobs, completely unrelated to the yoga field, to get basic business advice.

And, she said, pay people for their expertise if you don't have a personal connection with someone who has the knowledge you need. "You can find an attorney and a lot of other professional services - and you don't have to hire them for the long term just long enough to help you solve your problems."

Bowen said the full planning and build-out for her company, Thrive Yoga, took about 18 months. She also wrote a business plan, entered Rockville Economic Development's StartRight! Competition and won it, reaping $4,000 in 2005. This year, the first prize is $10,000 and applications are due Jan. 28.

She used her winnings to hire a bookkeeper for a year so she wouldn't "have to do that part of the nitty gritty," she said.

Her 4,000-square-foot business that she runs with her husband has been profitable since it opened. Bowen said she has had people e-mailing her "out of the blue" asking for advice, but "if they're not prepared with the questions that they're asking, I can tell they want me to do all of the work for them. Don't ask a mentor to spend a lot of time doing your work. A mentor wants to help you if you're on your way to solving a problem or at least making some effort to."

She remains glad she made the career change. "It takes a lot of courage to do it. It takes more courage to stay with it, and not go back to other world that you know."

Here are a few mentoring resources for both local and national readers. Small Business Blog readers - If you've got other suggestions on good mentoring groups or ways that you've managed to meet a mentor, please post a comment below. I'm sure your fellow readers would appreciate any resources on the topic.

A few mentoring resources:

America's Small Business Development Centers - A small business assistance network in all U.S. states and territories.

State and local chambers of commerce - Local chambers of commerce often offer seminars, workshops and professional speakers - all of which are good venues for finding a mentor. For example, Virginia's Reston Chamber of Commerce houses a firm I wrote about last month.

The National Business Incubator Association provides a searchable list of incubators in your state that may house compatible mentors for your business.

SCORE, a partner of the SBA, offers free and confidential small business advice for entrepreneurs.

TiE-DC - The Innovative Ecosystem, a nonprofit global network of entrepreneurs and professionals that provide mentors, seminars and other events. Here is a link to the Washington chapter, but there are chapters around the globe. Read the Small Business blog profile of the organization.

Yes!Circle - A Washington-based community of entrepreneurs in all stages of business development.

Entrepreneurs' Organization - A global group with local chapters designed to help entrepreneurs with at least $1 million in annual revenue learn from their peers.

By Sharon McLoone |  January 25, 2008; 2:56 AM ET Tools and Tips
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