One of the best ways to start and grow a small business is to get expert advice. I’m not referring here to paid consultants, a luxury that most early stage and small companies can’t afford. (When you can afford the right ones, by the way, they can be an excellent investment.) Instead, I’m referring here to getting a mentor of one kind or another.
I did 27 in depth interviews with successful entrepreneurs in writing my book, Low Risk, High Reward. They came in all flavors and sizes. When I asked them what factors they would attribute to their success, the almost unanimous answer was that, early in their career, they had a mentor. Bud Pironti of NSI, a direct response company, was particularly passionate on this subject, and he credits a great deal of his early and continued success to the mentors he’s cultivated over the years. (His wife accuses him, jokingly, of “collecting antique men.”) Bud stresses that you have to work at these relationships. If you’re sincerely humble and solicitous, he says, you’ll get back your investment five times over.
What does this mean? It means simple things like saying thank you to your mentor and following up to let that person know what happened when you pursued that lead he gave you or when you tried out that idea she suggested a few weeks ago.
Where do you find mentors? The answer is, “Lots of places including unexpected ones.” The senior managers of your suppliers may be fertile ground, or perhaps people you’ve worked with in the past, or college professors, or publishers of industry magazines. Entrepreneurs who own their own businesses are ideal mentors. They’re easier to approach than many corporate managers, and they’ve already been through much of what lies in store for you. Join your local Chamber of Commerce and be active. A mentor-in-waiting can be there.
“Surround yourself with people,” entrepreneur Earl Peek advises. “People whom you can call upon for different things. Get someone you can bounce things off of—someone you trust. Get someone with scrapes on his knees, someone who’s lost something. The best advice you can get is from someone who’s been through something bad.”
Again, mentors are everywhere. Think about the people you respect. Can you call upon one of them for advice? Could you build on that relationship over time?
When I talk to young people at business schools who want to start their own companies, I often feel their intense frustration at not having experience and having no way to get the experience they need. (You have to have a job to get a job as the old Catch-22 goes.) But I tell them that youth and inexperience are actually great cards for them to play. There are lots of experienced, successful business people who are more than willing to help young entrepreneurs if they are approached respectfully. They want to help, and they know that in many cases, teachers learn as much as students.
Another mentoring possibility is SCORE, which is a non-profit, founded in 1964 and funded in large part by the Small Business Administration. Go to www.score.org to find a chapter near you and how to access their free advice.
A major source of free advice is a Board of Directors—or the equivalent. I use that qualifier because if you’re a small business, you probably don’t want to incur the cost of directors’ insurance. (This is a must if there are other stockholders involved.) To get around this, call it a “Board of Advisers.” But this name change doesn’t mean you should take the creation of such a board lightly. No, this board doesn’t have the right to get rid of you and hire your successor—as does a formal board of directors—but you should consider it a serious obligation nevertheless. Run it in a formal way, and make sure it deals with the same matters as a traditional board of directors. (In most cases, this means policy-level questions rather than operational issues.) Share the numbers. Put together a binder of relevant materials, perhaps including both historical information and forward-looking material, and prepare an agenda. Then send it to the Board well in advance of the meeting. Don’t think you are too small for a board.
You can solicit retired executives or entrepreneurs, suppliers or anyone else whom you respect and who might have skills or knowledge that would complement your own for board members. Offer to pay their expenses and—when you can afford it—a nominal fee. (If you make products, think free samples!) Do everything necessary to make this work for you. It’s a great discipline, and it can help you focus on tomorrow’s problems. Be prepared to take criticism. Remember: that’s why you invited them.
Depending on where you’re located, there may be other similar resources available to you. If there aren’t, try thinking a little “sideways.” Is there an inventors’ or entrepreneurs’ club in your city? Maybe you’ll find some kindred spirits there—or at least, some original thinking. Find other entrepreneurs to talk to! Keep Learning!