If you asked 10 people what the word "entrepreneur" means, you'd probably get 10 different answers. Although business owners are often labeled entrepreneurs, not everyone who owns a business has an entrepreneurial mind-set or the qualities needed to make a business thrive.
One definition, which captures the essence of entrepreneurship, was developed by author John Hagel III, the founder and chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge, a Silicon Valley research center. From his perspective, an entrepreneur is not just someone who wants to make a bundle of money in the fastest possible way, but rather "someone who sees an opportunity to create value and is willing to take a risk to capitalize on that opportunity," he wrote in a Harvard Business Review article.
Among the biggest mistakes many novice entrepreneurs make is attempting to reinvent the wheel. Fortunately, entrepreneurs can easily avoid that common stumbling block by following the advice of motivational speaker Tony Robbins. He said that one of the keys to success in business, especially for aspiring entrepreneurs, is to ask for help from a mentor who already knows the ropes.
"Whatever you want in life," Robbins said, "someone has already discovered how to get it."
Robbins said that a seasoned entrepreneur "can likely save you time and pain with the knowledge they've gained in their own experiences."
As in all business relationships, it's often best to approach it from the standpoint of mutual benefits, he said. "First, figure out how you can help them, add value to their life, and then they will be more likely to help you."
Finding business coaches
Access to business mentors can help you avoid costly errors, overcome problems and take advantage of emerging opportunities. Fortunately, plenty of seasoned business owners and professionals are ready and willing to offer new entrepreneurs advice, guidance and coaching. If you don't know where to look, however, business mentors can be hard to find.
Effective strategies for finding them can include taking entrepreneurial courses at a local college, attending seminars and signing up for continuing education programs. Organizations like the Chamber of Commerce also offer workshops conducted by qualified instructors and local business experts.
For example, the Albany, New York, Capital Region Chamber offers an intensive, 10-week "Entrepreneurial Boot Camp." This 17-session course includes 10 hours of mentoring, assistance in applying for grants, ongoing help in writing a business plan and open discussions with panels of advisers, such as accountants, business lawyers, insurance professionals, marketing experts and loan officers.
Janet Tanguay, the chamber's entrepreneurship manager, said some students have compared the 60 hours of instruction to a "mini MBA program." From a mentoring standpoint, the semiannual course provides participants with access to approximately 55 instructors, most of whom are business professionals and established entrepreneurs. It also offers an opportunity to network with dozens of other students, which can generate new ideas, valuable business contacts and referrals, Tanguay said.
Learning to adapt
While a lot of factors contribute to success or failure of a new business, Tanguay said adaptability is one of the most important ingredients for business survival.
"The main things are adaptability and the ability to pivot when there's a problem," she said. If the economy changes, if your competition changes, [if there are] seasonality changes, [it's important] that they can adapt to whatever's going on. It's the people that stay 'status quo' and don't make those changes that have a hard time surviving."
Tanguay pointed out that when Blockbuster and Hollywood Video failed to update their business models a few years ago, services like Netflix and Redbox moved in and gained dominance in the home entertainment market.
The solution for people just starting out in business is to surround themselves with a strong support network. By working with mentors, other entrepreneurs and instructors, business owners can stay on track, identify obstacles in their paths and change course whenever necessary.
"We have clients coming out of dental school or massage school, and [while] they know their craft really well, they don't necessarily know about business," said Tanguay. Mentors can bridge that gap and help entrepreneurs navigate the challenges of running a business.
Sheilah Sable, the owner of an errand service called Call Sheilah!, found success after graduating from the Entrepreneurial Bootcamp. By working closely with her business mentors, she's established herself as a viable and growing business in the region.
"Being coached by a mentor has been one of the most instrumental influences in starting my business and achieving small steps towards success," Sable said. "I am not someone who likes to be told what to do. But [I] also am aware that I do not know everything, especially in this area, so picking multiple individuals as mentors has been a great commitment. I committed to do almost everything they suggested, since they are the experts, and it has worked out well."
Staying on the cutting edge
While not everyone has the drive and focus to launch and operate a successful business, there is an abundance of educational, mentoring and training programs for those that do. With more than 300 schools offering entrepreneurship studies in the U.S., future business owners have a lot of options to choose from.
In its 10th annual survey, The Princeton Review named the 25 undergraduate and 25 graduate schools that demonstrate the most commitment to entrepreneurial studies. The survey considered factors like the percentage of faculty, students and alumni who are actively and successfully involved in entrepreneurial endeavors; the number and reach of mentorship programs, scholarships and grants for entrepreneurial studies; and the level of support for school-sponsored business-plan competitions.
For entrepreneurs who do not have access to collegiate business programs or Chamber of Commerce entrepreneurial boot camps, SCORE offers many workshops, webinars and free small business mentoring services. Last year, the organization's 11,000 volunteer mentors donated more than 2.2 million hours of their time to help entrepreneurs start businesses, acquire new skills and overcome obstacles to success. With more than 320 chapters throughout the U.S., the nonprofit association, supported by the U.S. Small Business Administration, has a presence in many communities.
One of the success stories featured on SCORE's website is that of a toy-lending business serving Austin, Texas. In addition to being a toy-lending library, Tobrary also serves as a play space and birthday party venue. Through SCORE, business owner Liza Wilson connected with Celia Bell, a local mentor, who guided Wilson through the steps of opening her business.
"Celia has helped me with everything," Wilson said, "from marketing to pricing, interacting with clients, adding revenue streams and so much more."
Ready to start your business? Check out Business News Daily's step-by-step guide.