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SEPTEMBER 21, 2005     Editions: Edition Preference


By Michelle Dammon Loyalka

A Wealth of Experience on Tap

For a startup, a business mentor with a seasoned eye for pitfalls and opportunities can mean the difference between success and failure

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Have you ever worked with a business coach or mentor?

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Russell and Gayla Bentley thought they were well-equipped to launch their own apparel company, specializing in upscale, extended-size women's clothing. Gayla brought 25 years experience as a fashion consultant to the table, and Russell, a former petroleum engineer who had just finished his MBA, brought the business knowhow. With a meticulous 100-page business plan in hand, they were all set to sink their $250,000 savings, along with loans, into a high-end retail catalogue showcasing their original designs.

But their bank advised them to have their business plan vetted, and that's when they met business mentor Allen Shapiro, a retired retail executive with more than 30 years experience. Shapiro answered questions that Russell Bentley says he never even thought to ask, and helped him see the pitfalls of starting too big too soon. "He essentially guided me toward a more realistic approach -- a little bit more of a go-slow approach," he says.

Instead of starting with a catalogue, the couple opened a retail showroom in Houston and began approaching retailers. Before long, (NMG) and Nordstrom (JWN) stores began stocking the Gayla Bentley Collection. Now, two and a half years later, they're working on moderately-priced lines for outlets like Dillard's (DDS) and QVC.

ON THE RIGHT FOOT.  Bentley says talking things through with Shapiro saved them from disaster. "We probably would have gone broke pretty fast if we'd have gone forward with the big-scale plan," he says.

The Bentleys learned that launching a catalogue typically runs $3 million, and it can take five years to turn a profit -- meaning they would've started too big, too soon, especially with apparel, where you generally can't keep inventory from year to year. Launching a showroom, the Bentleys say, was a much cheaper and more realistic way to start, and their current success has paved the way for a possible catalogue in the future.

The Bentleys are certainly not the only first-timers whose lack of experience almost led to a near-fatal misstep, nor are they the first to be saved by a choice bit of timely advice.Traditional views of the maverick entrepreneur, braving the wiles of the business world all alone, are dissolving, says Linda Phillips-Jones, a psychologist whose 1977 dissertation on mentoring was one of the first in the nation.

COACH CLASS.  Today's small-business owners -- whether amateurs or seasoned veterans -- are realizing that bouncing ideas off someone who has been there, done that, saves time, increases efficiency, and may even reduce stress and stave off depression.

In the past decade, business coaching has grown from a nearly nonexistent field to a booming global industry. According to estimates from the International Coaching Federation, a Lexington (Ky.)-based nonprofit professional association of personal and business coaches, there are now more than 15,000 full- or part-time coaches in the country, and approximately 25% of them focus on business. In the past five years alone, ICF membership ballooned from 1,800 to more than 8,400 coaches in 30 countries, and executive director Daniel Martinage says there's no saturation point in the foreseeable future.

When Patty Celeslie and two coworkers decided to open Sandbox Creative, a graphic-design studio in St. Louis, coordinating the efforts of three partners seemed daunting. So months before they launched the company, they hired Jim Parker, a local business coach who helped them assess their individual strengths and weaknesses and devise a business model that spelled out each partner's responsibilities.

MENTOR MATCH.  His assistance proved so valuable that even now, seven years later, Celeslie says they still consult with him on major decisions. "This isn't someone that you hire one time and never talk to again," she says. "A business coach is somebody that you build a relationship with."

But with average rates running from $100 to $200 per hour, hiring a coach doesn't fit in every budding entrepreneur's budget. That's where mentoring comes in. Phillips-Jones, co-founder and principal consultant for The Mentoring Group, a Green Valley (Calif.) nonprofit that provides mentor-related consulting, training, and publications, says the days of passively waiting for a mentoring relationship to unfold are over.

"There are a lot of people out there willing to help, it's just having the nerve to approach them and not waiting around for them to find you, because they probably won't," Phillips-Jones says. Instead she encourages clients to actively "shop" for a mentor in service groups, professional networks, university alumni associations, and the like.

300,000 YEARS' EXPERIENCE.  There are also several organizations with programs designed to match entrepreneurs up with people who can provide them the support they need to succeed. The Bentleys met Allen Shapiro through SCORE, a nationwide nonprofit association with a network of retired entrepreneurs, managers, and executives who have provided free counseling to more than 7 million Americans over the past four decades.

With some 10,500 volunteers available both online and one-on-one at chapter offices around the country, SCORE CEO Ken Yancey says the Washington (D.C.)-based organization can help people at any stage of small-business development work through all kinds of problems in almost any industry.

"There's 300,000 years of business experience in that group," Yancey says. "It's truly a national treasure, and the fact that it's available at no cost to the small business owner or the person that wants to start a small business is pretty remarkable."

THE RIGHT FIT.  But don't expect a coach or mentor to devise a plan of action to solve your business problems -- their role is typically more of a listening ear and confidant than an expert who tells you what to do. "It's more of a sounding board, someone who isn't connected to the day-to-day operations and can look at things from a different perspective and talk through scenarios that you may not have thought of," says Celeslie.

That's why finding the right fit is so essential. "They have to be compatible," says Tim Knox, founder of eLab Ventures, a Huntsville (Ala.)-based entrepreneurial coaching and consulting company, and himself a mentor to several entrepreneurs over the past 10 years. "It's kind of like a marriage."

But at the same time, it's important not to spend too long looking for the perfect match. People with different approaches, different skill sets, and even backgrounds in different industries can provide insights you might overlook, and there's no rule that prevents you from working with several mentors and coaches at the same time, Phillips-Jones says. "We should all have a personal board of directors," she adds.

ONGOING RELATIONSHIPS.  It has been four years now since the Bentleys first contacted SCORE. Even though their company is running smoothly and they have access to many more resources than before, Russell still makes a point to have lunch regularly with Shapiro -- who by now is as much a friend as a mentor, he says. And though experts suggest that to prevent unhealthy dependency the mentoring or coaching should, at some point, officially draw to a close, Knox says that sometimes the startup consultation is just the beginning.

"If the relationship works and it's beneficial to everyone involved, it can go on forever," Knox says. "It doesn't have to stop when the mentoring stops." Consider it getting by with a little help from your friends.

Loyalka, a BusinsessWeek Online intern during the summer of 2005, is a graduate student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

Edited by Rod Kurtz

Copyright © 2005 . All rights reserved.

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