Sure, entrepreneurs can eventually succeed without mentors. But it will cost extra time and wasted resources. So, how does a small business start-up find a mentor? Or, better yet, a handful of them?
With a little time and pick-and-shovel work, a stable of mentors can be signed up. Soon they will change your business life for the better. Some might talk with you weekly; others once or twice a year; others only once in your business life. All of those conversations will be valuable; the mentors you choose will have been down the road you are seeking to travel. Chances are they can make your trip vastly more efficient.
Mentors can also be emotional-boosting cheerleaders for the times when you consider quitting. (Did you know that 95 percent of startups fail within the first 10 years? The remaining 5 percent are an elite group.)
Finding a mentor is a bit like finding a spouse, yet in this case the more polygamous you are, the better. A stable of mentors will have a wider range of advice. So, begin the search.
Start with your family. Do your parents or grandparents have friends or acquaintances with their own businesses in your chosen line of work? Is there a professor at your community college or MBA program who has a friend or colleague in your field? Is there a local entrepreneur in your industry you particularly admire? If so, this is where the most specific and valuable advice will come from.
Make a list, and then seek an introduction. If you have no one to introduce you, then you have to cold call or write a good letter. Be straight -- you are a neophyte and your mentor is an admired success. Could you buy him or her lunch or a drink and seek start-up advice? Can you make a donation to his or her favorite charity to honor the gift of their time?
As people age, they are more inclined to help others. So if your target mentor is an older person with kids graduated from college and life financially secured, you might get that lunch date or office meeting on your first call. If so, drop everything and be there for the appointment. You may hear a few gems of advice that will lessen the obstacles in your path.
In Chapter 7 of my book, Chicken Lips...: An Entrepreneur's Wild Adventures on the New Silk Road, I describe being adopted, along with a half dozen other entrepreneurs in our city, by a local large-scale entrepreneur who counseled the younger generation of start ups as a part-time hobby. It was his way of giving back to the community. For me it was an enormous boost to have a seasoned voice to call when things got tough, or when I was unsure how to proceed--or even survive.
My bank also assigned a senior executive from a nearby firm in my industry as an on-call mentor. It was a three-way win: The bank felt any advice he gave would help protect their growing loans to me; my business grew smart, faster, thanks to the mentor's sage advice; and his company may have learned one or two tricks from a squirming young entrepreneur unencumbered with big company bureaucracy.
A friend referred me to a local venture capital firm where one person took an interest in my company (though he never invested), and eventually joined my board of advisors and became a lifelong friend.
One of the things entrepreneurs often complain about is the loneliness of going solo. Employees and even family rarely understand the risks and extreme day-to-day difficulties of a start up. Older entrepreneur mentors, on the other hand, are members of that elite 5 percent survivors club, and know exactly what you are talking about. They speak your language, and are often eager to help.
Frank Farwell is founder and past president of the WinterSilks catalog (www.wintersilks.com). His book, Chicken Lips, Wheeler-Dealer, and the Beady-Eyed M.B.A.: An Entrepreneur's Wild Adventures on the New Silk Road, (John Wiley & Sons) was an initial nominee for the 2011 Financial Times/Goldman Sachs Best Business Book of the Year Award. It is sold in most English-speaking countries, at Amazon.com, and wiley.com.