Mattie Mae Larson has a growing business in Hawaii turning trash into treasure. Her company, Upcycle Hawaii, creates wallets, zipper pouches, bookmarks, beach totes and a plethora of other products. All of Upcycle Hawaii’s items are made from post-consumer waste diverted from local landfills. While her business has been built with blood, sweat and tears, she also shares another secret to her success: her business mentor.
Her local small business development center (SBDC) has been invaluable. Hawaii was just recently voted second to last in CNBC’s America’s Top States for Business — not the first time it has ranked low on those types of surveys — which means Larson needed all the help she could get, and that started with contacting the Hawaii SBDC back in late 2018. Larson said her local SBDC advisors have been supportive in numerous ways, from encouraging Upcycle Hawaii to create its first business plan and helping the company navigate the hiring process to assisting with loan applications and continually providing guidance through regular meetings.
In addition, working with the SBDC has also resulted in a much larger and growing network of business mentors and supporters. An added bonus: Larson’s SBDC advisor told her about Nav’s quarterly Small Business Grant competition, and she won $10,000!
Larson is adamant that “we wouldn’t be here without the help of our local SBDC and the strong community of people and organizations that they work with.”
Among other things, a business mentor can help you:
- Shorten the learning curve
- Help you identify blind spots
- Weigh the pros and cons of important decisions
- Review financing options
- Provide valuable connections
Best of all, when you work with a mentor, you know you’re not alone. Entrepreneurship can be lonely, and working with someone who understands those struggles can be invaluable.
So, how do you find a mentor?
How to find a business mentor
There are a variety of ways to find a small business mentor. Some mentors may offer short-term help while others may provide longer term assistance. Make sure you are clear about what you hope to get out of the relationship, and take their recommendations seriously. Don’t expect your mentor to fix everything. You’ll still need to do the hard work of running your business yourself.
SBA resource partners
The Small Business Administration offers a number of programs and services to help small business owners. SBA resource partners often provide one-on-one help to new and aspiring entrepreneurs. They include:
SBDCs: A new business is started every 26 minutes by SBDC clients, and 95% of clients recommend their services. There are nearly 1,000 local centers available for aspiring entrepreneurs and small business owners to get free face-to-face business consulting and at-cost training on a variety of business topics, from marketing to finances. Find your local SBDC here.
SCORE: More than 10,000 volunteer mentors work with entrepreneurs to provide free, confidential business advice to help them start and grow small businesses. In 2020 alone, SCORE mentors helped start 45,027 new businesses and created 119,562 new jobs. In addition to mentoring, SCORE offers a wealth of free, on-demand business resources, workshops and educational services and in-person workshops through local chapters. Get free business advice from a SCORE mentor.
Veteran business outreach centers: Veterans, transitioning service members, National Guard and Reserve members and military spouses interested in starting or growing a small business can get help from one of 22 veteran business outreach centers (VBOCs) across the country. In addition to working directly with a counselor, entrepreneurs will get help preparing a detailed five-year business plan, entrepreneurship counseling and training and other valuable assistance. Find your VBOC here.
Community business groups or associations
Networking through groups like your chamber of commerce, Rotary or other organizations may help you identify the perfect mentor. Trade associations can be helpful, but you’ll probably want to find a mentor from another market to ensure you’re not sharing your business concerns or struggles with a direct competitor.
There are a variety of small business communities online, including StartupNation’s community forums, that can provide helpful assistance, including groups for business owners looking to network in a specific geographic area, develop a social media presence or to learn how to build a website that brings in clients.
Choose carefully. Consider observing conversations for a few weeks before you jump in with questions, and be very careful about what you share online (or with people you meet virtually). It goes without saying you don’t share personal or business information you want to keep confidential.
Coaches and consultants
Sometimes it makes sense to hire a business coach or consultant to help you solve a particular challenge or to provide an outside perspective on how to make progress toward your goals.
That’s what author, speaker and writer, MC Coolidge did, and it paid off handsomely. In 2014, Coolidge had been in business for herself for 10 years as a public relations consultant and communications services provider.
“I’d been working with longtime clients for years without appropriate increases in my fees and knew I needed to raise my rates significantly to reach revenue goals for my business,” Coolidge said.
She was worried, though, that charging more might mean losing clients.
“I decided to hire a professional life/business coach to work with me to help me understand the competitive and industry standards for my type of services and also to help me anticipate and prepare for pushback,” she said. “She even helped me craft the language of the letters I sent to clients about my fee increases. Ultimately, I didn’t lose one client, and for some types of services I provide, my rates doubled.”
She said the lessons she learned then still serve her in her business today.
“That coaching I received is the single-most powerful investment I’ve made as a businessperson,” Coolidge said.
If your budget is tight, group coaching may be an affordable option allowing you to benefit from the knowledge of the individual leading the group as well as networking and support from your peers.
Key takeaways on finding a business mentor
It may take time to find the right mentor, and you may find yourself outgrowing one relationship for another at one point. But many business owners will benefit from the perspective someone with small business experience can offer, so don’t overlook this valuable tool for startup success.