Many employees fantasize about the entrepreneurial life – to be your own boss, call all the shots, have all the power.

Then there's the reality.

"Entrepreneurs always have to have their game face on," said Danny O'Neill, founder of the Roasterie, an air-roasted-coffee company based in Kansas City, Mo. "If you are scared you can't show the staff. You hear business owners saying they feel like an island, feel like they are all alone. Often in your company you are."

But entrepreneurs don't have to go it alone.

There are a variety of mentoring programs designed to meet the various stages of small business growth – one-on-one counselors, government programs, and peer mentoring groups, even formal mentoring programs that require formal commitments.

"People do want to help if you do your part and ask," O'Neill said.

Mentoring programs can be informal or formal.

Prospective entrepreneurs might want to run their idea by a consultant with a federal Small Business Development Center or a member of SCORE, a national mentor network. Or an existing business may take its business challenge – maybe hiring or firing an employee for the first time – to the organizations for one-on-one advice.

They also can seek a mentor from a peer network. Then there are more formal fee-based groups such as the Kansas City-based Helzberg Entrepreneurial Mentoring Program, also known as HEMP, which have criteria for mentors and those mentored.

"It depends on where they are in their business and what kind of expectations they have," said Maria Meyers, director of the Innovation Center at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

In April, the U.S. Small Business Administration and AARP teamed up for National Encore Entrepreneur Mentor Month, which was aimed at helping entrepreneurs over the age of 50. The two organizations matched "encore entrepreneurs" such as Donnetta Watson with successful business owners and community leaders to advise and assist.

Watson's entrepreneurial idea dates back more than two decades to when her cousin's fiancee showed her how to make a wedding corsage. Soon she was making wedding bouquets.

About 15 years ago, Watson started a part-time wedding planning business in Kansas City, the One & Only Wedding Service, while working full-time as a management statistician at the U.S. Census Bureau.

In 2005 she took the Kauffman Foundation's FastTrac entrepreneurial program with plans to take the wedding business full time. Instead, taking the course showed her it was too soon. She didn't have the funds to commit or the time, not with a husband and three young daughters.

But in mid-2011 she got an unplanned push. She was told that six offices of the U.S. Census Bureau would be closed in December 2012, so she could apply for a different job in another state or take a buyout. She took a severance package in December and by March had new offices for the One & Only Wedding Service, along with the Promise Wedding & Event Space.

Then she turned to a SCORE counselor for additional mentoring, including help with updating and tweaking her financials.

"We looked at where we are positioned and where we needed to go," Watson said. "I would need staff; I couldn't do it by myself, but I had used all I had allocated to start the business. I needed to get more financing for working capital."

Watson thinks back to another mentor, another Kansas City woman business owner who advised her to wait to own a business until she was ready.

"I was managing 200 people in six states, but it was not all on my shoulders," said Watson. "Now it is on my shoulders. I can't say, 'Go talk to the boss.' "

Barnett Helzberg, former chairman of the board of Helzberg Diamonds, had a 23-year mentoring relationship with Ewing Kauffman, founder of Marion Laboratories and owner of the Kansas City Royals baseball team.

That relationship inspired him to start the more formal Helzberg mentoring program in 1995.

"I thanked him one day, and he said, 'That's OK; you'll help somebody someday,' " said Helzberg, author of "Entrepreneurs + Mentors = Success," which tells about 22 Kansas City area mentor-entrepreneur matchups.

HEMP accepts about five mentors and 20 entrepreneurs annually from the greater Kansas City area. Mentors must be able to make the time commitment. The mentored entrepreneurs must own a majority of a business and be the ultimate decision maker, have at least five full-time employees, and make more than $1 million in annual revenue. They also must have a desire to substantially increase their business and be open to new ideas.

Mentors volunteer their time while the mentored pay $4,000 a year for the three-year program, along with a onetime application and self-assessment processing fee of $150. Along with one-on-one meetings twice a month, there are 12 to 24 organized events and meetings annually, including ones with top experts in finance, operations, marketing, human resources, and sales.

Among the graduates:

ALASKAN FUR: As a teenager, Missy Smart did odd jobs around her family's furrier business, Alaskan Fur, such as answering phones and gift wrapping furs. She went on to earn a journalism degree, working in advertising sales before and after graduating. But within months her family was roping her back in, under the pretense of seeking advertising advice. She became the full-time director of marketing and advertising. Six years later, in 1991, she became president.

"I knew a lot about advertising and marketing, design, but the financial side probably wasn't my strongest – the financial statements, projections," she said.

By 2002, she wanted to expand the business and knew she needed more financial expertise. But as a single mother of two young children, she couldn't go back to school for another degree. So she turned to HEMP. Bill Love, who had a strong background in venture capital, private equity and finance, became her mentor.

At first, neither Smart nor Love made it a priority in their busy schedules. Smart even sought another mentor. HEMP urged her to give it more time.

"He asked for five years of financials, then put together this elaborate report," she said. "He was looking at it from 20,000 feet above. I was looking it from the ground. He got me to hone it where we could make the business more profitable."

That included categorizing the inventory so she would know how much of sales were in mink, fox, leather – so she could plan for the next year's orders. She gave her staff more responsibilities in buying and manufacturing decisions, and she fired her controller.

"He said, 'This is what we need to look for.' I had a lot of weak systems," she said. "Sometimes in a family business you do the same things year after year."

Love and Smart also were becoming friends. A few months after she graduated from the HEMP program, he asked her out. Three years later, they were married.

Among the tips Missy Love learned from mentor Bill Love:

–1. Know your own weaknesses. Reach out for help from a variety of experts.

–2. Define the role of key personnel.

–3. Be willing to let go of the familiar and embrace new ideas and improvements.

THE ROASTERIE: In one of his first mentor matchups, Helzberg hooked O'Neill up with Henry Bloch of H&R Block. O'Neill advises getting a mentor who has been where you have been – who has made the mistakes so you don't have to.

"A Barnettism is: 'If you are smart you will learn from your mistakes, but if you are wise you will learn from the mistakes of others,' " said O'Neill, quoting his other longtime mentor, Helzberg. "They can be a sounding board and they can kind of validate what you are going through. "

Good mentors don't give their charges the answer, O'Neill said. Good mentors ask good questions.

Helzberg was originally against the Roasterie adding its branded cafes because he considered them a distraction.

"And just because you can do this, doesn't mean you can do that," O'Neill said. "But we had dozens of people, two or three hundred sets of eyeballs looking at it."

So the Roasterie Cafes were added, spreading the brand and increasing business.

Recently the two tossed around an idea of turning the Roasterie Airstream coffee truck into a mobile drive-through.

"He's been hugely instrumental in my life and my company," O'Neill said.

Among the tips O'Neill learned from mentor Bloch:

–1. As business grows, employees may need to become more specialized.

–2. Take a vacation.

–3. There are no shortcuts.

–4. The customer is your boss.



The SBA advises small business owners seeking a mentor to make sure a formal mentor-entrepreneur structure in place. Then they should:

–Be organized, prepared and consistent, and respectful of your mentor's time.

–Have realistic expectations of what the mentor can do for your business. Don't expect your mentor to operate your business or make decisions for you.

–To make the most of your sessions with your mentor, sit down beforehand and plan them out – goals, obstacles and questions.

–During your sessions take notes, set up action plans and goals, and review progress.

–Be sure to thank your mentor for the time and help.

SOURCE: The Small Business Administration


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