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WSJ: Your Mentor Is Out There -- in Cyberspace

United States, January 20, 2008

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Kelly K. Spors

Wall Sreet Journal
January, 2008

Last spring, Morgan Dalley of Austin, Texas, needed guidance on targeting and marketing her fledgling business hosting spa parties. At a meeting of a local business group, she heard about a Web site, MicroMentor.org [an innitiative of Mercy Corps], that matches entrepreneurs with volunteer mentors.

She built a profile on the site, and then searched its database of prospective mentors.

She found a professional business coach in Georgia with start-up experience and a sales background who agreed to mentor her free over the telephone.

For the next five months, the two talked on the phone for 10 to 20 minutes about three times a month, and the coach would assign her tasks to accomplish, such as identifying her ideal customers, between calls.

"Each conversation kind of builds on the one before it," says Ms. Dalley, 31, who had $43,000 in revenue from her business last year. "By the end of it, I came out with a whole plan that I didn't realize I was creating."

Many entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs could use some help and reassurance when it comes to starting and expanding their businesses, or just in fleshing out ideas.

Search Turns Cyber

But finding the right person with the right expertise -- and a willingness to volunteer his or her time -- isn't easy. Traditionally, people turned to local business-networking groups like the Rotary Club, but finding the most compatible mentor for your business was often difficult with the restricted pool of candidates.

Thanks to cyberspace, there are now new places to turn to find mentors, or at least for quick answers to questions you might have.

What Do You Need?

Before looking for a mentor, you should define what you're looking for. Choosing the best one often depends on what stage of the business you're in, and what you need help with, says Shelby Scarbrough, president of the Entrepreneurs' Organization, a membership group for business owners. Some basic questions: What are you hoping to achieve from the relationship? What are some questions you will have for the mentor? How much time do you think you'll need to spend with the mentor?

"A good mentor is someone who is expecting the mentee to show up prepared and with their homework, so you waste no one's time," Ms. Scarbrough says.

You may discover you need a mentor with expertise in your particular industry, or someone with a particular skill set, such as launching a start-up, raising outside capital or online marketing. You might even realize that you only need answers to some basic questions -- not necessarily a long-term mentorship.

Once you have your goals set, you can start searching.

Several Web sites, including MicroMentor.org and IdeaCrossing.org2, let both prospective mentors and entrepreneurs in need of assistance build online profiles and find each other. Once a match is made, the two can determine how best to communicate, be it by phone, email or instant messaging. Sometimes even a face-to-face meeting might occur.

A new social-networking site launching in the next few weeks -- iMantri.com3 -- will offer additional tools to help potential mentors and mentees find appropriate partners.

As well as online profiles, the site will offer features such as "competencies" and "goals" surveys to help facilitate good matches. The site will also offer a mentoring plan that can help lay out goals, and a mentoring journal to document progress.

"We will not stop people from meeting in the local Starbucks," says Satya Iluri, iMantri's co-founder. "But we will provide a framework and a platform," so all mentoring can be done online.

All mentoring on iMantri will initially be free, but eventually the site plans to allow mentors to charge a fee.

Some organizations specialize in helping certain groups of people. Count Me In (countmein.org4) and the National Association of Women Business Owners (Nawbo.org5) line up women entrepreneurs with mentors. The Entrepreneurs' Organization (www.eonetwork.org6) offers mentoring in groups and one on one, but is geared toward entrepreneurs who generate more than $1 million in annual revenue.

Basic Answers

If you just need answers to some basic questions, there are sites you can turn to for that, too. Score.org7, the Web site for a nonprofit group of retired and current executives that offer free counseling to entrepreneurs, offers a tool for users to choose the categories they need help with. The site then generates a list of counselors adept at answering such questions along with their biographies. You can then pick the counselor you want to deal with, and email that person a question directly.

A response generally comes within 48 hours.

Score also offers free face-to-face counseling in its local offices, but about 40% of the group's counseling is now done online, a spokesman says.

Business-networking site LinkedIn.com8 also lets you post messages seeking mentors in geographic areas.

And local business groups and chambers of commerce continue to host regular meetings and get-togethers so entrepreneurs can mingle with other entrepreneurs in their area.