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Kenny Lao, right, owns Rickshaw Dumpling Bar, and Peter Klein is one of his mentors.

Even old-hand entrepreneurs need mentoring

Mon, 09-19-2011
By: Elaine Pofeldt

Tips on locating mentors and building a strong working relationship with them

When Kenny Lao found out in July that his Rickshaw Dumpling Bar had won a proposal to open a restaurant in Times Square this fall, he realized that the tight time frame allowed no room for mistakes. “This was an unplanned opening,” Mr. Lao said.

Mr. Lao turned to the two mentors he had been matched with in the CEO/Small Business Advisory Program, a partnership of UBS Wealth Management Americas and the Clinton Economic Opportunity Initiative. The owner got frank input on a number of vital matters from Peter Furth, chief executive of FFF Associates, a family-owned firm that evolved from a spice importer into an international trade consultancy; and Peter Klein, senior vice president of investments at UBS. Their regular conference calls have been vital in keeping Mr. Lao focused on two, big-picture points: opening on time and managing cash flow, he says.

“They are not as emotionally invested, which is really nice,” said Mr. Lao, whose two stores and four food trucks have combined annual revenues of $3 million to $5 million.

While getting confidential advice from trusted experts has always been valuable to new entrepreneurs, in this economy, even experienced ones like Mr. Lao often find that getting an outside perspective helps prevent missteps.

“Young entrepreneurs have not seen times like this,” said Magnus Greaves, who advises many of them as CEO of TheCashFlow. It creates online courses that assist entrepreneurs in turning their ideas into profitable companies. Mr. Greaves also co-founded 100 Urban Entrepreneurs, a group that supports the creation of minority-owned businesses. Pro bono consultation becomes crucial in such a hard-pressed economy, according to Mr. Greaves. “When capital is hard to come by, good mentorship can stretch that capital even further,” he said.

Here are some tips on locating mentors and building a strong working relationship with them.

1. Don't expect a mentor to find you.

Accomplished professionals are likely to be busy, so expect to put in some effort to meet them. “A very good way is through a church or synagogue, or by doing charity or volunteer work,” said business coach Arlene B. Isaacs. “There are always individuals on the board who have distinguished themselves.”

If you've got a high-concept business, consider entering one of the many local contests in which entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to potential mentors and investors. Winning DailyCandy's “Start Small, Go Big” contest last year earned Vi Hoang, women's clothing designer and founder of online retailer Dolly Pearl, guidance from apparel and accessories designer Rebecca Minkoff on practical matters like sourcing and manufacturing. The prize includes just a day of mentoring, but the two continued the relationship. Ms. Minkoff welcomed the opportunity to show Ms. Hoang some ropes. “I know I needed a lot of help early on and would have benefited from [these kinds of] resources,” the veteran said.

It's not necessary to meet in person, either. “Facebook is really important,” said Ms. Hoang, who has gotten valuable tips from contacts she has made via the site.

2. Look for someone who “gets” your product or service.

It's best to find a professional who is involved in your industry or uses what you're selling, says Ryford Estores, who markets a package of home-haircutting equipment for men at Self-Cut System. He speaks regularly with Mr. Greaves, whom he met through 100 Urban Entrepreneurs. “He understands and believes in my product,” said Mr. Estores. “He actually cuts his own hair.”

Drawing on his experience, Mr. Greaves suggested that Mr. Estores offer an after-haircut cream to generate recurring revenues. The entrepreneur, who used to be a barber, loved the idea. “I'm in the process of developing that product,” he said.

3. Know what to expect from the relationship.

Mentors want to be of assistance, but a high-maintenance entrepreneur will have problems. “Mentors are there to bounce ideas off and to give you insights,” said Mr. Greaves. “They're not there to run your business for you. They're not there to tell you the right answers every time. It's your job to make the decisions for your own company.”

On the other hand, don't hesitate to ask questions for fear of looking like a newbie. “Invariably, they'll end up touching on many other things,” Mr. Greaves said.

4. Don't overlook one-time sessions.

A benefit of competitions like DailyCandy's, which announces its 2011 winners later today, is that they offer manageable doses of direction, according to participants.

Finalist Laura Williamson, founder of online knitwear retailer Le Loup-Garou, said that if she wins she will absorb everything possible from program mentor Jonathan Adler and other high-profile entrepreneurs. “Just to hear everyone's story will be inspiring for me,” Ms. Williamson said.

5. Be candid with advisers.

His mentors point out that one thing aiding their work with Mr. Lao is that he didn't hide details—including his persistent trouble delegating tasks that he thinks he can do better than his staff. “Communication is key,” Mr. Klein of UBS said. “You want all your cards on the table.”

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