How To: Find and Work With a Mentor

by Amy Swift, Chief Product Officer, Ladies Who Launch
Illustration by Barbara Hranilovich

Dozens of women approach me with the question, “How can I find a mentor to help me with my business?” This is a common request because not everyone has a sister who’s a legal eagle or a father who works as an international advertising executive. As entrepreneurs, we want someone we can call on to ask a quick question but also someone to sit down with to discuss the longer, more arduous details of a deal or overall business strategy. And we don’t want to pay for any of it.

Many people who think they need a partner or vendor would actually be better served by a mentor. A mentor is seasoned in the business you’re in; they have wisdom and experience in your particular area and a vested interest (not monetary) in helping you achieve your goals. But mentorship is a two-way street. There are people who love to give advice and support to those who need it, but there are limits to how you can use a mentor relationship.
Here are some tips:

1. Finding a mentor. A mentor is generally someone who has a personal investment or interest in you. You can find a mentor through SCORE or StepUp Women’s Network, but the best kind of mentor is going to be someone who already knows you (or loves you!) and wants you to come out on top. Seek someone near and dear; if you don’t have anyone (even a friend of a friend) in your wider Rolodex, then pursue a formal relationship through a mentoring program.

2. Set reasonable expectations. A mentor is not going to solve all of your business woes. They should be used for periodic counsel, but they are not there to offer in-depth business advice (unless they offer that). Set your expectations accordingly.

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Gina Bianchini

Gina Bianchini\'s NING has quickly become a very successful Internet business.CEO, NING

Gina Bianchini spoke at our BYOB (Be Your Own Boss) event on September 6, 2008 in San Francisco.

Tech entrepreneurs may seem like the Star Trek flight crew, venturing into unexplored territories with only their wits and insider knowledge of cutting-edge technology to protect them from the unknown dangers that abound. But, the truth is, it’s not necessary to be super tech-savvy to launch an Internet venture. You just need someone on your team—who you’d trust with your life—who’s a techie. Your Spock, if you will. Gina Bianchini, co-founder of the social networking service provider NING, ought to know.

In the case of her second Internet start-up, NING, which Bianchini launched with partner Marc Andreessen (the co-founder of Netscape) in 2007, her lack of deep technical expertise was actually her source of inspiration. She wanted a custom-designed social networking site, like her engineer friends had built for themselves. She envisioned the software equivalent of Home Depot, where users could find everything they’d need to build their own social Web sites and social networks without any special knowledge required.

The partners had a little seed money to get started, as well as a crack team of engineers. The company has taken off from there. NING now has 90 employees and hosts roughly 430,000 social networks, with about 2,000 new networks added every day.

What we learned from Gina: “The only thing you can really do on some level is build something that you think is useful to you and hope that it’s useful to other people.”

Simple Is Better

“The idea behind NING was really simple. Both my co-founder and I were really intrigued and passionate about all of the things that were happening in terms of social media back in 2003-2004. We came at it with the approach of, well, why don’t we build it out as a platform and give people the freedom and opportunity to create their own social networks?”

I Want That

“I was looking around at all of the things that developer friends of mine could do, and I’m not a developer, and I was like, well, I want to actually be able to say, ‘I want this feature but not that feature.’ The option and the freedom to customize themes, and choose different things ourselves, was something that was really important.”

Build It (for Yourself) and They Will Come

“In terms of knowing it was a need [that wasn’t being met], we kind of built it for ourselves. So on some level, the product that we have out there today—your own social network for anything—was, in part, what our small team of people wanted for ourselves. We sort of took it from there.”

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10 Tips for the Creative Entrepreneur

by Jennifer Lee,
Ladies Who Launch Incubator leader, San Francisco Bay Area
Illustration by Barbara Hranilovich

Do words like “business plan” or “profit and loss statement” make your skin crawl? Do numbers numb you out? Would you rather draw, write, and create than organize, budget, and plan?

If so, then you’re probably what I call a “musepreneur.” A musepreneur is a creative entrepreneur who uses her right-brain intuition and inspiration to launch and grow a business. Sure, maybe your feathers get ruffled when you hear the letters ROI, but that doesn’t mean you can’t artfully run a business.

The key to being a successful musepreneur is to fully embrace your creative nature. Your artistic gifts can actually help you find fresh solutions to your business challenges and enable your ventures to grow in ways you would’ve never dreamed possible.

Here are 10 creative tips to help you do just that:

1. Enlist your imagination. Use your creative intuition to paint the biggest picture of your business success (literally or figuratively). Spend some time envisioning where you want to be a year from now and have fun with it. When you’re in touch with your vision, it’s easier for the details to follow.

2. Create a Right-Brain Business Plan. Your business plan doesn’t have to look like a traditional plan. What’s key is that you’re clear about your goals and that you have them on paper. My Right-Brain Business Plan is a collaged accordion book. The front has inspiring images to connect me with my big vision. The back holds details like financial targets, milestone dates, and marketing goals.

3. Play with the Post-it Note project plan. If detailed project plans overwhelm you, try planning with Post-it Notes instead. Write each task on a Post-it Note. Use different colors to categorize. Then begin arranging them on a large piece of paper attached to a wall. You can draw rows on the paper to show weeks or months and start sequencing the notes on a timeline. The cool thing is your plan isn’t set in stone. You can easily move the notes around as you gain more clarity about what’s next.

4. Track your progress (with flair, of course). When you’re juggling many creative projects (as most musepreneurs do), it can feel like you’re not getting anything done. Rather than getting frustrated, acknowledge that you’re moving forward even if it’s one baby step at a time. A great way to do this is to find a beautiful bowl, and each time you complete something from any of your projects, drop a bead into the bowl. Before you know it your bowl will runneth over!

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Jen Groover

Innovative entrepreneur, product and concept developer.

CEO, Jen Groover Productions

Don’t try to put Jen Groover into one business category—it’s just not possible. Jen spans multiple brands, products, media, and markets. She says she doesn’t want to fit into one box—she wants to thrive in all of them. And she manages to do just that.

Jen has already developed such products as the Bulter Bag (a compartmentalized handbag), one of the fastest growing handbag companies in history; product lines that include accessories, dolls, clothing, parental aids, and games; and mentoring blogs. She also has a television program slated for the fall and a book launch in 2009. Her enviable publicity record includes ABC’s “Money Matters,” CNBC’s “The Big Idea With Donny Deutsch,” O, The Oprah Magazine, Success, Entrepreneur, and Redbook.

While in a Ladies Who Launch Incubator, Jen observed how many women with multiple passions felt they had to choose just one. Her advice—you don’t have to. She encourages women to join LWL Incubators to identify their passions, and then find a way to live all of them.

What we learned from Jen: “No matter what stage of the game you’re in, you still have those days that challenge your fortitude, perseverance, and strength. They are your tests—if you don’t pass those tests, you don’t get to the next level.”

Slip Into Something Less Comfortable

“My mother was a woman ahead of her time. She would always push me out of my comfort zone. I will do the same thing with my daughters. I do it with my employees. If you didn’t feel uncomfortable today, you didn’t grow.”

From the Classroom to the Boardroom

“I graduated in December of ’95 with a degree in education and psychology from Kutztown University. I didn’t want to be a teacher in the traditional classroom sense. Throughout college I had always been an athlete, and got into fitness as a full-time career. I co-owned a successful gym in Wilmington, Delaware, called the Groove Shop. We also did corporate wellness programs and lifestyle management with companies like MBNA and DuPont.”

Hitting the Wall

“I was a fitness competitor working many hours, over-training and teaching three to five aerobics classes a day. When I was 27, I got really ill and my kidneys, liver, and heart starting shutting down—basically I had a ‘come to Jesus’ moment where I had to look at who I was and what I was doing. My doctor said you need to change your life or you’re not going to have children and you’re not going to be healthy.”

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