Mentors can help small firms survive

Many small-business owners believe you should never go it alone — you should always have a support system, whether it consists of financial advisers, mentors, fellow entrepreneurs or consultants, to guide you. It’s true in the best of economic times, and it’s certainly the case in the current climate.

Business owners seeking help these days aren’t necessarily neophytes. This is an extremely difficult economy, and even veterans need a sounding board. They find it from a growing number of resources, among them peer or networking groups, mentors, professional and trade groups and government-­sponsored organizations such as SCORE, an association of executives that counsels small business owners. Very often, this help comes at no cost.

“I’ve been seeking a lot of help and advice recently,” said Jeremy Brandt, founder and chief executive of 1-800-CashOffer, a network of professional homebuyers based in Dallas. “A lot of it is about analyzing opportunities, when to get out of certain lines of business … figuring out what I should cut back on, what should I increase spending on.”

Brandt, who’s been in business for five years, has two main avenues for advice. He belongs to the Entrepreneurs’ Organization, which among other things helps its business-owner members form peer groups to discuss the issues they’re dealing with. He also has a mentor through the World Presidents Organization, an association of current and former CEOs of major businesses.

Brandt says one of the biggest problems he sees among fellow business owners is “they’re making the same mistakes made 100 times over by other people who have been in the same position.” By regularly meeting with peers and mentors, “people who have been in economic ups and downs,” Brandt said owners can avoid some of the pitfalls.

Megy Karydes also uses a mentor, from a Chicago-area organization, Chicago Community Ventures, whose services include consulting for business owners. Last year, the first year in business for her public relations firm, Karydes Consulting, she met with her mentor a few times; this year, it’s been more frequent. And her mentor doesn’t just soothe her or hold her hand — he challenges her.

“He almost holds me accountable — ‘Did you do any of this? Why didn’t you do that?’ ” Karydes said. “It forces me to be more thoughtful about the actions I take.”

She finds her mentor can be a good source for new business. “I want to make sure I’m on his radar. If something comes up, he’ll remember me.”

Business owners can find mentoring or advice in many places — starting with trusted advisers such as accountants and lawyers. Many owners swear by their networking groups, formed either ad hoc, or through organizations such as the ones Brandt and Karydes have used. And many do like the one-on-one approach of having a mentor.

If your city or community doesn’t have a group like Chicago Community Ventures, professional organizations such as associations of women or minority business owners, industry groups, chambers of commerce and houses of worship can be a resource.

Federal, state and local government agencies may also sponsor counseling or mentoring. The federal government’s best known resources are the Small Business Administration’s Small Business Development Centers, also known as SBDCs, and SCORE.

Locally, there’s a small business development center at Edmonds Community College. Business owners can find a SCORE counselor online at www.score.org.

Margaret Wilesmith, owner of Wilesmith Advertising/Design in West Palm Beach, Fla., has sought advice for herself, and she’s also a SCORE counselor.

Wilesmith started seeking advice two years ago, not because of the economy, but because she’d lost enthusiasm for the business. “Emotionally I felt like I could walk out and shut the door,” she recalled.

She found that talking to other business owners was the solution. “They had experienced the same thing that I experienced,” and helped her “bring the juice back” to her company, said Wilesmith, who also turns to her accountant and personal financial adviser.

It was about the time that Wilesmith was getting advice that she started dispensing it through SCORE to other business owners — or in many cases, would-be business owners who she had to discourage from starting their own companies. Helping others gave her “a new perspective on my own business and I got more confidence,” she said.

Her advice to other owners now: “Seek out people who have been in similar situations.”

Joyce Rosenberg writes about small business for the Associated Press.

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