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NOVEMBER 16, 1999

SMART ANSWERS
By Karen E. Klein

Will You Be My Mentor?
A mature businessperson may be glad to help a young tech entrepreneur get going


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Q: I'm a woman who's attempting to start a small technology company and would love to get some advice from a mentor. Where can I find one?

---- L.E., Atlanta

A: Mentor relationships run the gamut from informal, business-related friendships to structured programs involving classes or one-on-one meetings that run over a series of weeks or months. Most mentoring situations, particularly those in new high-tech and Web businesses, are not governed by a set of defined rules, experts say. More likely, businesspeople define the parameters of the mentoring relationship as it grows from initial contact into what can be a long-term association that is lucrative and rewarding for both sides.

There are formal mentoring/business counseling programs available through private consultants and volunteer organizations such as SCORE (the Service Corps of Retired Executives — www.score.org) and some business development departments at colleges and universities. A recently founded group for women in technology, the Women's New Media Alliance, is setting up a formal mentor-protégé program through its Web site, www.wnma.org. But the majority of mentoring relationships come about less formally, through networking connections and mutual friends.

If you are serious about finding a mentor, join groups that bring people in your industry together for networking events. Attend industry conferences and trade shows. Let your colleagues know that you are looking for a mentor, and ask them to introduce you to someone who might be appropriate.

One drawback in technology is that venture capitalists rely on seasoned executives with a mature, helpful perspective to take the reins or steer a company launched by business novices. So you'll be competing with the VCs — who pay big bucks — for the attention of those executives. Still, it should be possible to find someone who will give you some guidance without immediate compensation. It certainly helps if your company has the potential to hit the big time. "There's wisdom out there in the business community that is untapped, and [there are] people who want to mentor these new companies because it's in their self-interest to mentor somebody who is going to be very successful," says Don Baarns, CEO of the Internet Professionals Network, www.ipronetwork.com, a Southern California-based networking group for people in Internet-related jobs.

To establish a relationship with a potential mentor, approach him or her with respect and make it clear that the relationship will be reciprocal, says Stuart Skorman, CEO and founder of Hungry Minds, www.hungryminds.com, a Web knowledge portal based in San Francisco.

"People who are successful are very busy, and they have lots of other commitments. They're being hit up all the time for something, and they will resent it if you come in with a very hard-sell approach," says Skorman, founder and former CEO of Real.com. "Show appreciation for their help, and don't just expect this and expect that from a mentor."

Skorman offers a few guidelines: When you approach a potential mentor, be very specific about who you are and what you need. Don't waste the person's time asking basic questions that you can answer by doing your homework. Don't ask for money or introductions. If they want to invest with you, they'll offer to. Listen to the advice you're getting, and surrender to the process. You don't have to implement every bit of advice a mentor offers, but you shouldn't argue and insist that their experiences are not going to work for you. Nurture a friendship with your mentor and make your meetings fun and rewarding. If you do, you have the potential to benefit from a personal relationship as well as a long and rewarding business tie.



Have a question about running your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an e-mail at smartanswers@businessweek.com, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 6th Floor, 2 Penn Plaza, New York, NY 10121. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally.

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