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Hands On: Mentors For Hire

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Want to learn all you can about starting the business of your dreams but don't have a lot of time? You can do what Iris Shur and Jean Sifleet did: pay experienced business owners to show you the ropes.

Five years ago, Shur and Sifleet set out to open a shop selling furniture and home accessories on consignment. But having no experience, they had to do some homework--fast. From the moment they drove up to the doors of the Stock Exchange, a consignment store in Barrington, R.I., they knew they had stumbled on a fount of knowledge. "It was pouring rain on a Monday, and people were lined up down the street to get in," recalls Shur. "We knew we could learn from them."

So the two rookies approached Stock Exchange co-owners Jan Hess and Sarah Powers, who had launched their business nearly 15 years earlier with no experience. They agreed to spend a day teaching Shur and Sifleet, in exchange for a $1,500 fee and an agreement not to set up shop within 50 miles of their store. It was a pure business decision, explains Hess--just another way to make money.

A few days after the initial meeting, the four met over breakfast at Powers's home to talk about the business. Shur and Sifleet learned how to choose an ideal location, how to identify good workers, and where to advertise. They got lessons in merchandise appraisal, bookkeeping, and store layout--as well as in the idiosyncrasies of the consignment business.

In the afternoon they went to the Stock Exchange. While their mentors worked, Shur and Sifleet had free run of the store, including accounting books and customer files. Although they learned many practical lessons, the customer-friendly atmosphere was most memorable for them. Employees made every effort not to discourage consignors who brought in worthless items, like a cracked vase or a ripped chair. You never know--they might be back with something more valuable next time. "They never looked down on people," says Sifleet. "They'd say, 'This is a very nice item, but we just couldn't sell it in our market."

In parting, Hess and Powers told their students they could call any time for more advice, which they did over the next several months. Now, five years later, Shur and Sifleet still go back to their notes for advice, although their own consignment business, Tables to Teapots, in Acton, Mass., has grown to $600,000 in revenues. And the two have been hired to mentor a few fledgling entrepreneurs themselves. "If we didn't learn from somebody else, it would have taken us a hell of a lot longer to get to where we are now," says Shur.

Last updated: Dec 1, 2000




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