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MILL VALLEY, CA -- Starting a small business is tough in the best of times. But, during a recession it can be a bottomless money pit that drains your sanity along with your wallet. Now there's a new online service that hooks up fledgling entrepreneurs up with experienced mentors, and the distance between the two people is not a factor.
"It's absolutely impossible to have a successful business if you don't have a business plan -- which I didn't," said Tami Kelly, sculptor.
A business plan is not all Tami Kelly didn't have. As a home-maker for 27 years she didn't have much education, or outside work experience. But, Tami did have a talent for sculpting and - after a difficult divorce - the drive to try and turn that into a career. She just needed some coaching.
"My world was so small, I thought that just by talking to people that I met and sculpting and dog parks and passing out my cards would do it," said Kelly.
"These businesses need more than just access to loans or business training. They need one on one connection with business experts to help their businesses grow and that's exactly what we help them do," said Jeff Jones, MicroMentor.
A non-profit called Mercy Corps has just launched a free online social networking tool called MicroMentor 2.0.. But, unlike Facebook or MySpace, this one is designed to link small business owners with mentors and advisors to help them focus and grow their companies.
"We're focusing on underserved entrepreneurs, so largely women, minorities, entrepreneurs with disabilities, entrepreneurs in rural areas and in low-income communities," said Jones.
And since it takes place online using Skype or other communications software, the mentors can be anywhere in the world. One of Tami's primary advisors is an American expatriate living in the south of France.
"And though I'll never probably meet her in person, she's had the biggest influence on me. She's a tremendous woman and she's so giving," said Kelly.
Tami says her mentor has been especially helpful when it comes to marketing. But, mentors are available to feel many needs including: accounting, planning, engineering and others. What's more, you're not just limited to one mentor.
"We've improved relationship management tools so entrepreneurs can form a virtual advisory board, if you will, and find many different mentors to help with several areas of their business and it's much more social and friendly," said Jones.