There is no such thing as a natural entrepreneur. It is a learned skill. That’s why every entrepreneur, no matter their industry, age, or expertise, needs a mentor. A good mentor can help an entrepreneur avoid the pitfalls they faced, seize opportunities, and save great amounts of time and heartache.
Luckily, for the entrepreneurs of Grand Rapids, we have mentors with experience in all sorts of business. And their advice, experience, and skills can be had for free thanks to Grand Rapids SCORE.
SCORE is a national nonprofit with over 13,000 mentors with experience in 62 industries. These mentors have come together with the purpose of passing on the business knowledge of their members to others, whether they are trying to start or already have a business in operation. Here in Grand Rapids, Chapter 642 has been going strong since 1990 and have been recognized by their national organization as an exemplary chapter. They have offices at the Grand Rapids Chamber, at 111 Pearl Street.
Mentoring through SCORE is always free, no matter how many times a client might meet with a mentor, or ask them for information. SCORE does offer business classes in which clients must pay for materials, but outside of that, SCORE’s services are free to clients. The services that SCORE offers are thanks to the 43 volunteer mentors that offer their time and knowledge to help others face the same challenges they faced.
One of those mentors is Dennis Dornbush, SCORE’s liaison to the Grand Rapids Public Library. Thankfully, GRPL is not alone in this; libraries all over the state have found beneficial partnership with their local SCORE chapters. On the first Thursday of every month, appointment-only sessions are available with SCORE at the library. You can sign up for a session at the Grand Rapids Public Library’s Small Business Resource Center page.
Mr. Dornbush is an entrepreneur with over 40 years of experience in the manufacturing business. Through that long career, he has owned and managed several businesses. He sold a company, and came to know SCORE through a friend who was active in SCORE’s Atlanta chapter. Instead of a quiet retirement, he has opted to give back and use his knowledge to help other people succeed in business.
Mr. Dornbush is a generalist; he can help anyone who walks through the door at SCORE. However, there are many other mentors that can help in specific areas, such as marketing, finance, human resources, etc. In the Grand Rapids chapter alone, mentors can access 1700 years of business experience to help you meet your business goals. No matter your query, they can help. In turn, there are many things that you can do to make your experience with SCORE as beneficial as possible:
- Visit your local library
At your local public library, you can read up on any number of industries or types of businesses. They have database and print resources, and in some libraries like GRPL, a business librarian to help patrons perform business reference and research. A chat with a librarian can help you find local resources, classes, and most importantly, sharpen your queries into specific questions that you might take to SCORE.
- Have a few specific questions
That is not to say that you need to have your business plan figured out yet. No SCORE mentor will expect you to have all the answers or a complete business plan in the first session. They will help you as many times as it takes to put you on the right path.
However, if you come with some specific questions, this will give your information needs structure. From there, a SCORE mentor can help you much more effectively.
- Write things, and bring what you have written down
You’re excited. You have ideas. You want to start acting immediately. That’s great, and that’s how an entrepreneur should be.
But sitting to write is intimidating. You don’t necessarily know the structure of a business plan, or a marketing plan, or a HR policy, or any specific considerations of your industry.
This is natural. Unless you’re looking to start a writing-based business, entrepreneurs don’t get into business because they want to write a lot.
At this point, don’t try to write something complex, or even complete. All the thoughts you have about your business, all your questions and concerns, simply write them on scratch paper. The first things you write don’t need to be complex, or even fully formed. No matter what you write, writing helps you think. By writing, you can get your ideas outside yourself, and start to judge them effectively.
- Schedule your meeting ahead of time
Scheduling a meeting, either at the Chamber or at the Library is advantageous, because this will guarantee your session. You can also tell SCORE beforehand your industry and questions you want to ask; with that information, SCORE can schedule your session so that the best mentor is available. It is very likely that they have a mentor who has worked in your industry and its specific issues. If at all possible, SCORE wants to connect you with the mentor who can help you best.
These questions and concerns can be forwarded to SCORE in a number of ways, either via the SCORE website or from nine o’clock to noon Monday through Friday at SCORE’s offices within the Grand Rapids Chamber at 111 Pearl Street in Downtown Grand Rapids at 616-771-0305. Those morning hours are open to walk ins, but an entrepreneur runs the risk of not having the best mentor available, or not having a mentor available at all because a meeting was scheduled in that time.
- Be prepared to take notes
There is a book that I would recommend to anyone: Getting Things Done by David Allen.
Mr. Allen explains how much of our anxiety about work stems from the fact that we do not have a system of organization for our ideas. We can have great ideas, but trying to store them all in your head is a recipe for anxiety and failure.
Your system could be as simple as a notebook or as complex as a digital system that spans a number of devices. No matter what, all people need a system that gets ideas out of their heads and in places where they can be effectively accessed at a later time.
Your mentor is going to be giving you advice and follow up based on the information you give them. You must be able to record these concerns and questions if you wish to succeed in business. Further, when ideas strike you, you will need to be able to write ideas down as they come to you in the future.
It is an easy thing to overlook, but invaluable.
- Be prepared to plan
Mr. Dornbush explained that, as well as having the mindset of an entrepreneur, planning is key to survival in business. Of course, being a SCORE mentor, he is speaking from experience, for it was planning that allowed his business to survive a great shock: in two months time, during the depths of the recession, his business dropped 60% in two months. It was an ‘Oh-my-God’ scenario for a business with 30 million in sales.
Thankfully, Mr. Dornbush and his colleagues had already planned for this scenario.
They had saved money during good times and written an agreed on plan so they knew what course of action to take if their business ever dropped off a cliff. Instead of “spending six months losing money making knee jerk reactions,” all the hard decisions had already been made. They executed their plan, and the business was able to go on.
As an entrepreneur, you will have to plan for situations just like this. You will have to research your market and see what the data are telling you. Only then can you make informed, effective decisions. SCORE can guide you in this process.
- Keep, and develop, an entrepreneurial mindset.
Beyond a SCORE mentoring session, Mr. Dornbush explained that a business owner must have a mindset to succeed.
In a normal job, a worker can go home at the end of their workday and forget about it. Being an entrepreneur, Mr. Dornbush explained, is like being married: you can never simply punch out. Quite literally, you cannot quit; if things need getting done, you have to be the one to do them. Further, a worker has maybe one boss, or many bosses looking at their work. An entrepreneur has many, many more, whether it be customers, suppliers, or if a company becomes large enough, employees.
Developing this mindset in people is where SCORE, Mr. Dornbush explained, can really shine. An aspiring entrepreneur might be an excellent technician in their field, but they lack the requisite skills to make it as a small business. SCORE can help build these skills to turn a technician into an entrepreneur.
- Be prepared to have an idea that doesn’t work.
I spoke with Mr. Dornbush about his successes as a SCORE counselor. He has put 10 clients into business, taking clients who walked into the door saying “I want to go into business,” and getting them off the ground so that they lasted through their first year.
His next biggest success is something a bit different: convincing a client not to go into business. 80% of his clients, he says, fall into this category. It pays for SCORE to be hard-nosed in this area, because entrepreneurship is a big risk no matter what business you’re going into.
It’s hard to appraise your business idea by yourself, because enthusiasm is a big part of entrepreneurship; it’s the first thing you need. But even with enthusiasm, a business idea may still not be viable. This is not a comment on you or your ability to succeed as an entrepreneur, just that you found an idea that doesn’t work out.
Whenever you’re working with SCORE, remember: they’re not trying to simply be hard-nosed in the questions they ask. If you do go into business, they want you to have the best chance at success possible. Why would you want to pour sweat, time, and money into a business that has little chance of succeeding?
- Tell your idea to people that you can trust.
One thing that any entrepreneur knows is that when you have an idea, the worst thing you can do is tell that idea to someone you can’t trust. On the other hand, in order for your idea to develop, you need to talk about it. It’s a Catch-22.
The great thing about SCORE is that you can talk to them without fear that someone is going to steal your idea. SCORE will never take an idea and use it to the disadvantage of an entrepreneur. They will never use information to your detriment, will always give you the best advice they can, and never try to sell you any product or service. This is also true of the GRPL SBRC; no one will try to sell you anything, and the business librarian will never talk about your idea to anyone.
If you have a business idea, there are all manner of people who will look to give you advice. However, there are few true mentors around. There are few people who have the experience and expertise to ask the tough questions that will help you realize your entrepreneurial goals.
SCORE’s mentors have experience in business and industry that is unmatched. They have a wealth of knowledge they want to share. They offer this knowledge for free, to anyone.
If you want to start, expand, or excel in business, SCORE is the best there is. And they are ready to help you on the path to business success.