One of the perennial pieces of advice I get as a new entrepreneur is to put together a board of advisors or get a circle of mentors.
I’ve found this doesn’t really require well-connected folks with the word chief in their titles. What I really benefit from is practical advice on how to do things I don’t know how to do. My years as business reporter have taught me it’s the job of important people to take charge of the big picture, not the tiny details. The people who have the hands-on skills and experience are usually several rungs down the ladder. Luckily, these are also the kind of people I know.
And they’re usually happy to help. People who aren’t constantly sought after for interviews and advice are happy for opportunities to share their hard-earned experience. And I’m not asking these folks for an ongoing commitment. I come to them with a specific issue and they usually help me out over an hour-long coffee or quick phone call or even an email.
Here’s an example. This week I had two travel-related companies come to me looking for marketing partnerships with FamiliesGo! One clearly wanted me to propose a strategy but I had no idea what to say. (I have no background in marketing or sales.) So I asked what I hoped were intelligent questions about the company’s goals and needs and said I would circle back with a plan.
Then I sent notes to four friends who have experience with marketing, promotions, and advertising sales. A high school buddy only had time to send me a few lines in an email, but they were helpful. Among them: I should try to negotiate short-term contracts so I can change how I package and charge for things as my audience grows (and as I learn more).
A fellow Kauffman FastTrac classmate met me for coffee and gave me examples of what services I can offer and how to put them together. She also gave me a quick lesson in how to present my ideas and follow up. Among her helpful tips: characterize the prices I offer now as introductory to set the stage for bumping them up later on. And keep the client as informed as possible.
The best part about these relationships is that I don’t have to be sheepish about asking for advice because I know there’s a good chance I’ll be able to reciprocate their help at some point. The friend who met me for coffee is starting her own business. After we got my questions out of the way I was able to give her advice on where to turn with questions about business insurance. And I offered some resources she could use to promote her new store to local parents, an audience I’m familiar with.
As a new entrepreneur I’m constantly running up against the limits of my experience and knowledge. But then I run down my list of Facebook friends and LinkedIn connections. I mentally sift through the names of all the people I met at my sister’s birthday party last summer. I rifle through that stack of business cards I’ve collected. It’s challenging to reach that deeply into my network over and over, but each time I do I find the help I need.
It’s a good exercise in stretching myself. It’s usually gratifying. And it allows me to move on to the next challenge.
Last updated: Aug 10, 2011
EILEEN P. GUNN is the founder of FamiliesGo!, a travel website for busy parents planning family vacations. She is also an independent journalist and author whose work has been published widely. In her Inc.com blog Start Me Up, Gunn shares the whys and hows of building a business as she does it. @familiesgo