Headshot of Shelia NewmanEver since Shelia Newman's first experience as a mentor, she's learned a lot about self-employment. Find her tips on starting your own business and learn why working with a mentor may help you on your path to self-employment in today's blog post!

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Want to start a business? Find a mentor!

Nov 6, 2017

By Shelia Newman, President of New Editions Consulting, Inc.

Headshot of Shelia NewmanI started a business without the benefit of a formal mentor, but I did have 25 years of experience in my field. I had cultivated a network of experts; watched and learned from co-workers, supervisors, and business owners of the four firms where I worked; and read business and management books as I was deciding to start out on my own.

I was better prepared (and maybe older) than most entrepreneurs. Still, I struggled to learn all I needed to know about the complexities of government contracting. Without the support of my informal mentors — the experts I had met along the way — I don't think I would have succeeded. I remember thinking that if I ever had the opportunity, I'd be a mentor one day and spare an entrepreneur the difficulties I faced.

My first mentoring experience

I became a mentor quite by accident. I attended a lunch and met a young veteran with a disability who had started a company to win government contracts. I offered him subcontracts to get him started, but he had not yet won his own contracts. 

He and I both learned a great deal from our relationship. He continues to learn the business through his subcontracts, hoping to one day win that first government contract. I've learned insight into the skills, characteristics, and experiences that help entrepreneurs.

People start businesses for many reasons: ambition, a credible idea, frustration with current employment, or exasperation of looking and not finding a suitable job.

Self-employment offers many benefits, like getting to make all the decisions and being your own boss. But it can be difficult making every single decision and staying motivated to get tasks done. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), more than half of small businesses fail in their first year, and 95% fail within the first 5 years.

Having a mentor to offer you advice, share experience and help with those tough decisions may increase your chances of success. Learning from my first mentoring experience, I have been better prepared to mentor young entrepreneurs. I developed a list of questions I ask them:

  • Do you have experience? Working for someone else allows you to make your mistakes while someone is paying you to learn the business! You can also learn from a volunteer position.
  • Are you disciplined? Working independently without a boss to direct you or set deadlines might be harder than you think. It takes a vast amount of effort to start and maintain a business.
  • Do you have money and resources to pay your bills while you are getting started? Inadequate cash reserves is one of the common causes of failure. If you receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or can become eligible for it, you may qualify for a Work Incentive known as Plan for Achieving Self-Support (PASS), which allows you to set aside money and resources to help achieve a particular work goal, including self-employment.
  • Have you done your research? In addition to having worked in the business you want to start, you must know your audience and how to price your services or product correctly.

A mentor may help

If you can answer the questions above and still want to start a business, find a mentor who can offer you the time and commitment to help you succeed. A good mentor will offer you:

  • Expertise: Writing business plans, understanding the market, knowing how to price services and products, setting aside money for cash flow, and knowing tax, license, and insurance requirements are all things a mentor can help you understand.
  • Resources: A mentor will help you understand that you can't do everything yourself and may guide you to banks, accountants, accessible website developers, marketing specialists, etc.
  • Contacts: Knowing people in the field and sharing those contacts is a critical benefit a mentor can provide.
  • Direction: After you've started the business, you'll soon ask: Now what? If successful, you'll need to learn how to handle your growth. If your business is not doing as well as you hoped, a mentor can help you assess the reasons and get on track.
  • Reassurance: Supportive guidance can lead to self-confidence, which is essential for business success. A mentor can help you see challenges as opportunities to learn and grow your business.

If you are a college student or recent graduate, you can find a mentor through the U.S. Business Leadership Network's Rising Leaders Mentoring Program. The Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) also provides free small business start-up advice.

About the writer

Shelia Newman, who was recently inducted into the 2017 Susan M. Daniels Disability Mentoring Hall of Fame, is President of New Editions Consulting, Inc., which is a National Organization on Disability (NOD) 2017 Leading Disability Employer. Ms. Newman has more than 25 years of experience in Federal government contracting, focusing on disability issues. Ms. Newman earned a B.S. in Journalism and a M.S. in Rehabilitation Counseling. She is on the Board of Directors of the U.S. International Council on Disabilities and is on the Board of Directors of her local Chamber of Commerce.

Ticket to Work

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The Ticket program is free and voluntary. It helps people with disabilities move toward financial independence and connects them with the services and support they need to succeed in the workforce.

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