When Sturdy McKee sought to expand his physical-therapy practice two years ago, he wanted help understanding financial statements so that he could better plan the growth of the business and eventually acquire outside funding.
He found that someone online.
Specifically, the 39-year-old Mr. McKee turned to MicroMentor.org, a nonprofit that helps founders of small enterprises find business mentors online, run by international relief organization Mercy Corps of Portland, Ore. He filled out a profile about himself and his goals and then searched profiles of potential mentors that matched his needs. He ultimately found an accountant from the U.K. who had recently moved to the U.S.
The San Francisco entrepreneur and his mentor spent the following months talking on the phone weekly and going over what the various parts of a balance sheet were and some financial vocabulary, occasionally emailing or faxing example documents back and forth.
"Being able to access somebody with very specific skill sets is very beneficial," says Mr. McKee.
He has since mentored two other entrepreneurs through MicroMentor -- one in California and the other in New York -- on topics like starting a physical-therapy practice.
MicroMentor, which has made nearly 700 mentor matches since it started in 2001, is one of a growing number of Web sites that allow prospective mentors and protégés to easily find each other. Usually, each party creates a profile detailing his or her mentoring needs or expertise that can be viewed by others. Once a match is made, the mentoring can take place through email, instant messaging, Web conferencing or over the phone.
This approach allows small-business owners to tap the expertise of people they might not otherwise meet, especially those who live hundreds or thousands of miles away. Online mentoring also can save time by allowing people to quickly get to the point. Emailing questions and answers, for instance, forces them to lay out their issues in a concise and clear fashion.
For volunteer mentors, it is a way to use and share their expertise with others. And many mentors, like Mr. McKee, were previously mentored by others and feel they need to pay it forward.
Still, some experts caution that online mentoring isn't always an ideal substitute for a face-to-face relationship. That is because it doesn't as easily allow people to build trust and exchange body-language cues and other nuances that only meeting in person allows. Also, miscommunications can happen via email or instant messaging that disrupt the relationship. And some people worry that it isn't necessarily safe to reveal information about business plans to someone you have never met.
"Online can be a great way to follow-up, but at least meet in person the first time," says Shelby Scarbrough, president of the Entrepreneurs' Organization, an Alexandria, Va.-based international organization of people who own and run companies.
IMantri.com4, a new social-networking site for entrepreneurs and others looking for career guidance, lets people build profiles with photos. It includes a search function where people can type in whether they're looking for a mentor and mentee, what help they need or what expertise they have to offer. They then get a list of possible matches they can contact through the system.
So far, 1,800 people have created profiles on the site, says Satya Iluri, iMantri.com's co-founder and chief executive.
By sometime this summer, the site will allow users to charge for mentoring services if they choose, and will probably take a 6% cut of any fee, Mr. Iluri says. It also plans to offer a messaging feature that allows conversations to take place directly through the site.
Sites that are geared toward helping entrepreneurs find funding, including Go Big Network LLC'S GoBigNetwork.com5 and JumpStart Inc.'s IdeaCrossing.org6, also are allowing entrepreneurs to find mentors. People can scour online ads of potential mentors and contact them via the site by sending a message that goes to personal email. The mentors must then respond if they are interested.
Traditional entrepreneur counseling groups also are getting in on the action online.
Online mentoring relationships currently make up 39% of all mentoring done through Score Association, the Washington, D.C.-based volunteer entrepreneur counseling organization loosely affiliated with the Small Business Administration, says Chief Executive Ken Yancey.
About 1,200 of the organization's 11,000 counselors have profiles on a searchable database on the organization's Web site, Score.org7. People can go on the Web site, search for Score counselors with expertise matching their needs and pose questions to that counselor via email.
With Score, online counseling is more transactional, meaning that once the question is adequately answered, the relationship often ends.