It’s tough to be an entrepreneur or a business leader. The hours are long; the stress is high. Sometimes the risk is overwhelming, and a lot of people are dependent on your success. Long hours and dedication can take their toll, and sometimes it helps to get perspective on how and why those tolls were taken.
That’s why it’s helpful to have a mentor, someone who has experience with the business problems you’re facing or who can just help you get some perspective on things. Mentors don’t just grow on trees, though, and even if you’re lucky enough to meet someone else who is in your industry or has experience with the issues you’re facing, there’s no guarantee that you’ll get along.
For these reasons, we’ve compiled a list of online resources for business mentorship and advice. They aren’t the only resources out there, but they’re some of the best places to start your search for a mentor.
SCORE and the SBA
The Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) is a network of tens of thousands of people who are experts in various business areas and are happy to help business owners think through problems and strategies. The Small Business Administration (SBA) supports the organization, and the mentors volunteer their time, providing most services free of charge. You can search for a mentor by geographical area or expertise, and even find “e-mail mentors” open to coaching you remotely.
The SBA has many other resources for finding mentors, including:
- Small Business Development Centers (SBDC): These provide management advice to current and prospective small business owners. They also offer financial counseling and marketing advice, as well as IT help and assistance with exporting and manufacturing.
- Women’s Business Centers (WBC): Similar to SBDCs, these offer advice for women entrepreneurs. There are over 100 WBCs nationwide that specialize in helping women start and grow their businesses.
- Veteran’s Business Outreach Centers (VBOC): VBOCs offer similar guidance to the groups above, but they focus specifically on veterans who own or are launching a small business.
- Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA): These groups help minority business owners gain access to capital, market research and general business counseling.
In addition to these resources, the SBA offers tips on finding and working with a mentor, as well as links to their Mentor-Protégé Program, which we’ll explore in the next section. For additional federal resources, the SBA recommends Business.USA.gov.
The 8(a) Mentor-Protégé Program
This program is part of the government’s 8(a) Business Development Program. The 8(a) Business Development Program is an assistance program for businesses owned or controlled at least 51% by socially and economically disadvantaged people.
One advantage of an SBA 8(a) Protégé designation is that federal agencies give preference to Protégé contractors in the bidding process for government projects. According to the regulations, in order to qualify for 8(a) Protégé designation, your business will have to be in the developmental stages, have never previously received an 8(a) government contract or be no more than half the standard size of companies in its NAICS code. Also, you can only have one mentor at a time under this program, which means you can’t have, for example, an accounting mentor and a human resources mentor at the same time. Interestingly, mentors are allowed to offer financial assistance of their own in the form of loans or equity investment and can own up to 40% of the Protégé firm they are affiliated with. Mentors must agree to provide at least a year of mentoring. You’ll need to sign an agreement with your mentor that outlines the partnership, which you’ll then need to provide to the SBA. Check with your SBA district office to learn more.
Sponsored by Capital One, Hewlett-Packard, Google and other prominent organizations, MicroMentor is a free online service that connects mentors and business owners. Registration is relatively easy. Simply sign up and create a profile describing your mentoring request. Interested mentors contact you (if you want to contact a specific mentor, you can do that too). You can also join MicroMentor groups, which focus on specific industries, topics or parts of the country.
MeetUp is a service that allows people who share common interests to host meetings in their local areas. The service boasts over 15 million members, and many of them are located in the U.S. A lot of these meetups are business-oriented and industry-specific, but there are many others that bring entrepreneurs and startup founders together to reciprocate advice. Query “business mentoring” in Denver, for example, and nearly 30 different groups pop up. Meetings are usually held at local restaurants or other gathering spots once a month, but locations and frequency can vary according to your MeetUp group’s preference.
Given the ubiquity of social media, it might be easy to overlook resources like Facebook or LinkedIn. In addition to company pages and profiles, Facebook also offers a huge number of mentoring group pages that operate by region, industry, college affiliation or even by corporate culture. Along the same lines, LinkedIn can be used to find potential mentors and groups. Try searching for potential mentors using relevant job titles (e.g. CEO, Director of Sales, etc.), or look for online groups that appear to offer relevant advice based on their membership or profession.
Private Mentoring Firms
As this list shows, nonprofit organizations commonly facilitate introductions between mentors and mentees. But private mentoring organizations are also worth a look. Some, like Silver Fox Advisors, focus on helping entrepreneurs in specific geographical areas (Silver Fox specializes in Houston). Others, like CountMeIn.org, which works only with women, help only specific types of entrepreneurs. There is usually a fee involved, however, which can make these arrangements feel more like consulting deals. This might be worth it if you need a mentor with extremely specialized experience or someone who has other indispensible characteristics. Knowing that a third party has vetted the mentor can also be reassuring.
A mentorship can be an invaluable resource that both you and the mentor can benefit from for years to come. Keep in mind that not all mentors are created equal, so oftentimes your search will not be quick or easy. While these resources will definitely help your mentor search, the best place to start is your personal and professional network; ask your colleagues and family members for references, and see if those leads connect you with whom you’re looking for. If not, continue your search online. Whatever route you choose, be sure to reach out as soon as possible, because in the end, it may be the difference between success and failure.