Isolation-number one cause of small-business failure | Daily News

So, you want to start-up and develop a small business – Part 33

Isolation-number one cause of small-business failure

A lack of capital, a poor location and inadequate marketing and distribution aren’t causes of small-business failure; they are just symptoms - symptoms of the dreaded disease: Owner’s Isolation Syndrome (OIS). The symptoms of this syndrome affect every small-business owner at one time or another, but if you commit yourself to preventing the disease, you can avoid many of the symptoms.

Utilize mentors

When you start your small business, the first thing you should do is find one or more mentors. Somewhere within your reach, you can find a veteran small-business owner who will agree to be your mentor if you approach him or her correctly.

Effective mentors are basically consultants - who usually work free. What they have to offer is the ability to draw upon their extensive experience, one of the best teachers of all. You can go to a mentor to deal with strategic issues, the long-term, fundamental and always-critical issues, like strategy, vision and finances. (Note that most mentors prefer to focus primarily on your strategic concerns, as opposed to your operational issues.)

So, get the help of a mentor. Sounds simple, right? Unfortunately, most small-business owners don’t know how to find those veterans who will agree to become mentors, nor do they know how to cultivate good mentor-mentee relationships after they do find them.

Finding your mentor

Here’s our three-step mentor search plan:

1. Compile a list of prospective mentors. Ask your banker, your accountant, your lawyer and folks around town who are wired into the small-business community (people at the Chamber of Commerce, Service Corps of Retired Executives and Small Business Development Centres) for the names of veteran small-business owners who may be interested in helping you succeed.

2. Contact the best person. This should be done through your research and what your intuition indicates who the best mentor is? The best mentor is typically someone who has current or previous experience within your chosen industry, although this is not a prerequisite. (However, general business experience/knowledge is a prerequisite.) Very often, a good mentor is retired and thus, may be motivated to help others as a way to stay involved in business.

The best way to approach a prospective mentor is to write him or her a letter introducing yourself, your business, and the reason for your interest. Follow up the letter with a phone call. Don’t use e-mail for the initial contact, it is too informal and doesn’t convey how important the mentorship is to you.

3. Persuade your prospective mentor to sign on.

Here is a sample: Mr. (or Ms.) Veteran, my name is Wanda Wannabe. Mr. Legal Beagle, a mutual friend of ours, suggested I write to you.

I am not looking for your money, but I am looking for your advice. Would you agree to spare a small amount of time each month to meet with me if (1) I promise not to waste one second of it, (2) I will provide you with a complete agenda in advance of every meeting, and (3) I follow up on the suggestions you make. You can name the place and time of our meetings.

As you have probably surmised, I am looking for a good mentor. Would you consider being that person?

Don’t rush into the relationship; have a lunch or a dinner together first. (You buy, of course!) Remember, this is a relationship you’re seeking here; you want to make sure that you and your mentor will be compatible.

Building the mentor-mentee relationship

After you’ve found a mentor who matches your needs and requirements and is willing to work with you, work at fostering your relationship. Here are several tips that will help you retain your mentor and make the most of the relationship.

Understand that mentoring is a personal experience, not a business one. If the chemistry is right, the relationship will work well. If the chemistry doesn’t work, the relationship won’t work either.

Follow up. Drop your mentor a note after your meetings. Or the next time the two of you talk, let your mentor know how implementing his or her advice turned out and how much you appreciate the help.

Be honest with your mentor. You should be truthful about the problems and issues you face. No sugar-coating allowed. Your mentor will see through the fluff anyway and he won’t hang around for long if he thinks you aren’t being completely truthful with him.

Leave your thin skin at home. Good mentors speak their minds and aren’t shy about poor ideas.

Don’t blindly follow all of your mentor’s advice. Your mentor may have different priorities, ethics and needs than you do. So, in the end, follow your heart as well as your head in making decisions based on your mentor’s input.

Network with peers

Second only to a good mentor, peer networking is the best of the small- business owner’s learning devices - if you can locate the right networking resource. Imagine the power of putting a dozen or so current small-business owners in the same room. Imagine the wealth of solutions that may appear when one of the members presents a nagging problem or a thorny issue and asks for help. Do you have a problem with an employee who can’t seem to get to work on time? Surely, another business owner has had the same problem before; don’t be afraid to discover from your peers what has worked for them. Keep your eyes and ears peeled to find out names of few peers.

Get a partner

Here’s a fact that not everyone knows: Partnerships outperform sole proprietorships by a wide margin. This statement is nothing more than simple maths at work: One plus one equals at least two. Sometimes, one plus one equals significantly more than two if the partners can blend their skills and talents. (Google, Apple, and Hewlett-Packard are examples of companies that began as partnerships.) So why might a partnership make sense for you? Here are just a few reasons.

Complementary skills: Although you’re probably aware of your own strengths you may overlook your weaknesses. Ask those who know you well - family, friends and current or previous co-workers, what complementary skills you should seek in a business partner.

Additional capital: Two savings accounts are better than one.

Greater problem-solving capacity: Two heads are (usually) better than one.

More flexibility: One partner goes on vacation or gets sick; the other one minds the business.

Ease of formation: Partnerships are easier and less expensive to form than corporations (but not as easy or inexpensive as sole proprietorships).

Less risk: Profits aren’t the only thing partnerships share. They share problems and losses too,

Forming partnership

Maybe, you may have plenty of reasons not to want to take a partner (or multiple partners) into your business. Everyone knows juicy horror stories about business partnerships that turned sour and even ended up in court, destroying the business in the process (assuming anything was left to destroy). After all, warring partners seldom go down alone.

The success ratio of partnerships is highest when the two partners have complementary skills. You’re a sales wizard? Find an operations type for a partner. Your skills are in product development? Find someone who has experience in getting the product to the marketplace and subsequently sold.

How do you find a partner (or partners)? The same way you locate a key employee, a consultant, or a mentor: Identify what it is that you need (in this case, the skills you’re looking for) and then network your available resources.

When forming a partnership, you’re beginning what you hope will be a long-term relationship that often rivals a marriage in terms of complexity. If you’re smart, you’ll determine a way to test the chemistry of the partnership before you get so far involved that you can’t get out. Otherwise, you may learn the same lesson that too many marriages teach - a lifetime can be a long time.

The number one rule of a partnership is this: Don’t enter into one without first consulting an experienced lawyer. Have the attorney advise you and your prospective partner about the many obstacles that lie in the path of a successful partnership. Then ask the lawyer to assist you in drawing up an ironclad, airtight, cast-in-stone, buy-sell Partnership Agreement to overcome those obstacles - a Partnership Agreement, by the way, that will be tested many times throughout the life of your business.

Join a Trade Association

You should also join a trade association. No matter who you are or what industry you’re in, a trade association is probably available to you. The best trade associations offer a wide range of potential benefits - everything from business contacts to skill-building workshops to industry-specific information to group insurance programs. In addition, most trade associations host industry-wide trade shows at least once a year, during which you can mingle with suppliers and peers.

Tap into Small-Business Information

Magazines and books (and associated videos, audiotapes, and DVDs/CDs) that help the small-business owner are available in bookshops. Online books (for e.g. Amazon.com) are quite economical. You can read them on your Kindle, iPad, laptop, PC or even on your mobile phone. Some books are even free.

(Lionel Wijesiri is a retired company director with over 30 years’ experience in senior business management. Presently, he is a business consultant, freelance newspaper columnist and a writer.)


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