Do you have a personal support system?

Being a small business owner can be isolating. By creating your own personal support system, you can combat that feeling, get guidance with business next steps and find the motivation to take action.

Here are four personal support strategies that are simple to set-up, easy to maintain, have a built-in accountability factor and are proven to work!

support system

1. Support Partner

The support partner is your unconditional “business friend”.  Ideally, this person is someone in business like you who can listen, give emotional support for your business issues, and provide constructive feedback on business dilemmas and opportunities. The relationship is bi-directional – each support partner helps the other. You each take turns listening and giving/getting advice. You may agree to meet weekly, catch-up, share problems and successes, and then use your partner as an objective reviewer for your weekly plans. You can meet in person or by phone or video chat. The meeting should be a check-in for ongoing support and follow-up. It is important that this relationship is on-going (at least bi-weekly) and long-term (at least 6 months). That way,  your support partner gets exposed to your business issues and understands the context and the players in your world. Your meetings can be a catalyst for positive change and an opportunity to talk discreetly about business issues outside of your own business environment.

2. Peer Support Group

This strategy involves gathering several “business friends” into a support group of peers – people in business at similar stages of growth and open to getting and giving help to colleagues. They could be in the same industry but they don’t have to be. This group could meet monthly to share concerns and common goals and to provide one another with useful information. Like the support partner strategy, each member of the support group gets encouragement but to an even greater extent, since the support is coming from a group of three to six people. You can prepare for a meeting ahead of time and focus on a work-related goal. At the meeting you can get creative brainstorming support from a small group of people all focused on you. You will provide the same support and business feedback for them – each person taking 15-30 minutes of group time to discuss the issues, present some options, take feedback and promise to implement a solution. Before the next meeting, you will complete your tasks, as there are other people waiting for your results! This accountability factor is very helpful. Your support group will be expecting to hear about your progress at the next meeting and your success related to implementing next steps.

3. Business Mentor

We all know people who know more about being in business than we do. These are people that we approach as our advisors or “business mentors”. This person could be a small business owner or business professional like a banker or an accountant, a larger (and friendly) competitor, or simply a friend wise to the ways of business. The relationship is usually very professional, managed carefully, and used only when appropriate. Once a mentor has been located and established (even if informally), you must respect the advisor’s time (which, after all, they are giving you for free).  Show that you value their time and professional advice by staying within the meeting timeframe agreed upon, communicating your appreciation for their support, and following up by email or phone to share your progress and the results of their advice.

4. Team of Advisors

This group is a voluntary board or team of advisors that may only meet annually. This is a broad-based group of people who volunteer to meet together for you, follow your agenda, review your issues, and give their individual and collective advice. This group may include a senior manager in your industry, a successful entrepreneur, your friendly attorney or accountant, or even an established competitor in your field – who wants to give back and help you!

You need to find and invite the right mix of experts and set up the meeting (perhaps a weekend breakfast at your home). They attend and give you advice and direction for one or two hours. You will have a room full of incredible experts focused on you and your success.  Their compensation is that you will take in their advice, implement it and follow-up about the results. They will delight in your progress and success. In addition, they may get to develop a new network of peer supporters for their own businesses.


Each of these four business support strategies are valuable. Depending on your needs, you can use just one or all four to support yourself and your business.  Start by picking the one that most appeals to you, seems the simplest to get going, and has the most potential to bring you tangible results. By committing to this process, you are committing to make your business work. Asking for and getting help from others will help you succeed!

Hiring great professional support

In every stage of small business, whether you are an emerging or an established business owner, it is important to have trusted relationships with professionals who know you and can support and direct your business growth and long-term sustainability.

professional support

Why get professional support?

As a small business owner, you will hire outside experts for many reasons — for technology support, social media development, financial planning, bookkeeping, legal issues, personnel reviews, or to improve your business management. You may also benefit from contracting with a business advisor who can be an expert sounding board on business decision-making, holding you accountable and helping you to meet your goals.

What to consider first

First, you need to be clear about why you want help and what you want from any professional. What is your challenge or opportunity?

Next, identify the qualities that would make a professional a good match for you and your business. You want to find someone who:

  • Has skills and experience that exceed your needs
  • Is ethical, transparent and trustworthy
  • Has an approach that fits with your style
  • Is available when you need them

How to find “the right one”

It can be hard to know if someone will be a good match just from looking at a website. We recommend asking for referrals from people you know and trust, and who are also in small business. After getting referrals, though, you must still do your own due diligence! You are not just hiring someone for an hour of their time (even if for now that is all you need). You want to find someone who can be a great support person for your business for months and years to come.

Due diligence

Whether you find a professional from a Google search or a trusted colleague, you need to do your homework. When interviewing potential people to work with, it is important to:

  • Honestly represent who you are and what you are looking for
  • Ask lots of questions to verify this person has the expertise you need
  • Read their testimonials and/or reviews
  • Understand the terms of the relationship and any contract, including fees.
  • Pay careful attention to the questions he/she asks you. (They should be assessing if you are the right fit for them, too!)

(Once you are working with someone, be sure to continue to re-assess your needs and the professional relationship so that you get the outcomes desired as your business grows and your needs change.)

Finalizing the match

Take your time to make a good decision. You need to feel confident that this professional understands you and your needs, will be available when you need them, and will help you implement effective solutions. This person will be an essential business asset – giving you advice that you can use, and helping you to develop systems for your business. With the right support, you will be able to focus your energy on your clients, customers, employees and business goals… and see long-term positive results for your business!

Business advice from the field

One of the most enjoyable moments during the Renaissance Business Planning Class is when we invite graduates back to the classroom to share their experiences and their business advice. They talk about their successes but also reveal their struggles and mistakes, and what they might have done differently. Their advice has a profound impact on the current students who are about to launch or expand enterprises of their own.

In that tradition, I asked some of my clients and past students to share their thoughts on a common growth challenge for small business owners: balancing business skills with the complexity of the business. I recently shared six key considerations on this topic. I was curious to hear from small business owners in the trenches.  How did their business skills match the complexity of their business when they first opened? How have they dealt with this tension throughout their business’ evolution? What advice would they want to share with others?

Here is one story…

Heidi Gibson and Nate Pollak
The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen

When Heidi and her partner Nate opened The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen they already had general business expertise, people management skills and financial management experience but they were new to the restaurant industry and lacked specific industry skills. Heidi and Nate’s approach was to be honest with themselves about their own abilities and get help. “We took a cold hard look at what we did and did not know how to do, and then we recruited advisers who could teach us, or hired staff who already had the skills we lacked.”

Heidi and Nate took a similar approach when opening their second location. They had never run a multi-unit operation before. They sought consulting from other multi-unit operators, and hired general managers for each store who had come from multi-unit backgrounds. “We tasked the managers in the stores with the responsibility of ensuring consistency across the stores, not just within their own. For us, hiring managers who brought experiences and skills to the table that we did not have ourselves was crucial.” With the added complexity of two locations, Heidi and Nate decided to outsource their bookkeeping, too. “We hired a bookkeeper who had deep experience with multi-unit restaurants, which brought more expertise to our operation and freed up our time to handle other issues.”

Just this month Heidi and Nate opened their third location and published a cookbook, Grilled Cheese Kitchen: Bread + Cheese + Everything in Between!

Heidi’s advice for other small business owners:


Be brutally honest about what you are good at and what you’re not.

For the things you are not good at, find a way to outsource them to someone who is good at them. This goes double for bookkeeping and accounting if you are in a high-volume, low-margin business.

Ask for help.

There are a lot of resources out there for growing business owners, including Renaissance, SBDC, ICA and most importantly, other business owners. People want to see you succeed and you’ll be surprised at how much they want to help.

Don’t skip financial forecasting.

Many small business owners underestimate their financial management needs and make mistakes with finances when starting or expanding a business. The worst-case scenario is running out of cash, and sometimes growing can really chew up cash. You’re in a much stronger position to secure financing before you run out of cash rather than waiting until you’re down to the wire. Take the time to forecast cash flow, accounting for your growth needs, and start investigating funding options early rather than late.

Check out these tips on balancing your business skills with your business’ complexity and stay tuned for more words of wisdom from small business owners!

Grappling with change

The only thing constant is change.

As small business owners, we continually navigate change. The ups and downs of sales and marketing trends, hiring employees or letting them go, adjusting our business expertise to match the marketplace. Change is inevitable! As successful business owners, we face the change, own it, and take action.



Planning for change

Sometimes we can anticipate a change and get ready for it. Small business owners know their product sales will jump during the holidays. They can predict how a seasonal spike in revenue or how new competition will affect their business.  They can plan for the change and be ready.

We can also plan for a new direction in our business, such as a new affiliation, an ownership succession or a business sale.  Then we can map out a specific management timeline and take a series of steps over weeks or months (or even years) to manage the change.

Dealing with a detour

Sometimes change happens to us suddenly. Someone we love gets sick, we lose a contract, or a key employee suddenly quits. When something unexpected happens—either in our personal life or in our business—it can easily disrupt our world. We may lose our sense of control and can be at a loss for what to do next. Are we on the right path? Should we be doing something else?

Here are some strategies that we recommend to navigate unexpected changes.

Acknowledge the change and your fears

When experiencing an unexpected change, it is natural to feel uncomfortable. The first step is to acknowledge what you feel and that you are in a difficult place. The situation usually doesn’t get better by pretending it is not really happening. Write down your fears and put them on the wall in front of you. Sometimes they lose some of their power once you face them straight on.

Seek accountability

Reach out to others to share what you are experiencing. Your colleagues can remind you that you are not alone. Your business community will understand the impact of this change and, if asked, can be there for you with support and empathy. They can give you a different perspective and help illuminate a path forward.

Be here now

Mindfulness meditation (even for just a few minutes a day) and other awareness practices can help you relax and stay calm. It can help you focus on the present moment, instead of worrying about what has happened or what might happen. Insight is hard to hold but it is worth the practice.

Your own perspective

How did you handle past changes or challenges? The way you dealt with past experiences may help you now. Maybe it was with support from friends, spending time on self-care, actively tackling the problem a little bit at a time each day, or exercising. Give yourself the permission to wait for a solution to come. Be ready to move on.

Keep moving

Sometimes, the easiest first step is just to put one foot in front of the other. Keep doing what you love! What you accomplish each day, even if small, will help you deal with the challenge at hand.

Above all, remember to be patient with yourself. We all have the capacity to adjust to what life throws at us… eventually!

Elements of effective mentoring

“The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image,
but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.”

– Steven Spielberg

January is National Mentoring Month so it feels like the right time to be talking about small business mentoring — a key ingredient to success for every entrepreneur.

At some point, we all need guidance, a sounding board and a cheerleader to navigate through changes, growth and challenges in our business. Guidance can come in many forms — from a business “buddy”, through a peer support group, or directly from a trusted business adviser or a team of advisers. No matter the form, what is most important is that our mentors encourage us to look closely at issues and opportunities, and to maximize our potential. With their support, we can develop our business skills, take risks, and be successful.


Our support system must include people who have been in our shoes.  We must surround ourselves with subject-matter experts and experienced small business owners who have dealt with similar challenges first-hand and can help us make sense of the clutter and make decisions with relevant, timely advice.

Though we believe that the best small business mentors are other small businesses owners, success in business does not qualify someone as a good mentor.  That person must also be a skillful listener and motivator, know how to ask questions, and know when and how to give honest advice. In addition, the best mentors open doors to a wider network that can support us and our business.

To sum it up, we believe that effective mentors…

  • Listen carefully to what you say (and don’t say)
  • Understand your needs and respect your point of view
  • Ask questions and challenge assumptions
  • Guide based on their own experience/expertise
  • Share relevant and immediately actionable advice, and
  • Are accessible and supportive over the longer term.

Above all, the mentor-mentee relationship should be a partnership, based on mutual respect and trust.

Mentoring matters

What really matters to us as we move through life? For many of us, it is family, friends, good health and making a difference in the world through the work we do.

I recently read the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson and watched a documentary on his life and last few months. Jobs didn’t ever seem to give up. He pushed himself and others to be different and make a difference. He is an example of someone who had a passion for life, a commitment to make an impact, and a curiosity that never went away.

Jobs felt that “the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe to be great work.” He went on to say that “the only way to do great work, is to love what you do.” Do we all have this passion and enthusiasm? Are we committed to being a success no matter what stands in our way?

Most small business owners are driven… to do something our own way and to be a success. Yes, we want to be financially successful but other types of success matter to us, too: doing something unique, being remembered, teaching others, and leaving a legacy — something that will last.

But what happens when we get stuck? What if we cannot stay connected to the passion? What if success feels elusive and failures do not all become lessons learned? Innately, we know we must keep moving forward and that we will learn from our failures if we can figure out a different path. (Of course, trying to do the same thing the same way over and over is not wisdom, it’s insanity.) Success usually doesn’t just show up. We have to go out there and get it…tackle it, embrace it, own it.

small business mentor

Sometimes we have trouble figuring out the next steps on our own, though. There may be too many options. We may be spinning our wheels around one particular issue. We may hesitate instead of taking action. When we stumble and panic, who can guide us and nudge us forward? Finding someone we trust to mentor us can be critical.

I have a client who is a long-distance open water swimmer. When his group is on a long swim they have escorts in kayaks, rowboats and inflatable motorboats. As he explains, the escorts “look out for our safety, fending off other boats, telling us where we are, where to go, they feed us. They make sure we are okay in mind and body. They are our cheerleaders and companions in our journey to the goal.”

small business mentor

Small business owners also need guides through rough waters. We need escorts, cheerleaders and supporters as we deal with changes and difficulties in our businesses. We might be forced to move locations unexpectedly, have an important employee abandon us, or struggle to make the business financially sustainable. In these times, mentors are essential.

According to the Startup Genome Report, “having helpful mentors” is key to entrepreneurial success. This survey of 650 internet startups found that “the right mentors significantly influence a company’s performance and ability to raise money.” Though we may not have the data to prove it yet, I believe mentoring matters for all small businesses, both new and established. With great mentor support, we can all become the small business owners we want to be.

Remembering a great friend and mentor

As we celebrate another year around the sun, I have been reflecting on what matters to me most and, in particular, the important relationships and mentors in my life. I have been thinking a lot about my late friend and PTA associate, CeCe Phillips.


CeCe Phillips

CeCe and I were born the same year, just a few weeks apart. Our closeness in age felt like a special bond. I often joked with her about how she was older than me. She would always reply, “ Now Paul, you don’t want to go there!”

I thought I was her best friend…at least that is how she made me feel. She was so supportive and always made it clear that she truly cared about me. We talked on the phone, exchanged e-mails, saw each other at business meetings, met for lunch or coffee, and often co-taught classes together. Many years later, when she was too sick to travel because of cancer, I would visit her. At the celebration of her life after she passed, it was clear that she had been a best friend to so many. She loved all of us and had a gift for treating everyone in her life as someone special.

CeCe was a great listener, a quality so important in a friend and mentor. She was curious about me, my family, and my small business. Every time we were together she asked good questions and gave me the space to answer. When giving advice, she was careful to say just enough and not more.


Paul and CeCe back in the day

CeCe was also quick to share with me how I was a support to her. I remember giving her advice once about what she could say in a speech to a small business group. Though she didn’t end up using any of my exact suggestions, she told me afterwards, “What you shared with me was in there. Your ideas helped me think through what I wanted to say. Without talking to you first, I might not have ever gotten there on my own.”

In the last weeks of her life, I called her every couple of days and we would talk while I did errands and she sat in her chemotherapy treatment. We chatted about family, business colleagues, and what we wanted to do next. (We were always planning our next big idea or business venture together.) We laughed together and shared stories. She continued to mentor and inspire me with her passion for life, even as life was ebbing from her.

Of the many lessons I learned from this remarkable woman, three stand out:

  • Listen closely and watch carefully when someone is talking to you.
  • Do whatever you can to empower and provide support to all the people around you.
  • If there is a choice between playing and working, always choose play.

It is hard to label many things in life as “perfect” but this may have been the perfect friendship. Thank you CeCe for being a wonderful friend, mentor and teacher.  You continue to inspire!

Leading you in the Right Direction



As business owners, we cannot do it all by ourselves. Small business specialists can help tackle problems in accounting, law, insurance, graphic design, marketing, management and other critical areas.

I’ve found there are three primary reasons for a business owner to hire an outside expert:

  1. For the short-term when over-extended, such as market expansion or preparing a business for sale
  2. For specific or sensitive issues, such as personnel problems
  3. For issues demanding special expertise, such as computer systems, taxes or engineering help.

Here’s how you can choose the right professional for you and your business:

Before your search begins
Determine what you really need, when you need it and how much you can afford to spend. This will help you decide the type of professional to look for and the criteria you’ll want to use in evaluating your options. Know the results or outcomes you would like to obtain. This will help clarify the level of expertise you’re looking for.

The Search
Ask for recommendations from colleagues in businesses of similar type, size and philosophy (instead of blindly searching the internet). If colleagues have been satisfied clients they will be happy and eager to refer the professional or consultant to you. You can also find quality help through business associations and industry-specific professional groups.

The Screening
Find an advisor who can really listen, evaluate the situation, make recommendations and then, if appropriate, help you implement solutions. When you first talk with the professional, notice if he or she can connect your problem to his or her previous experience. Pay attention to the questions the professional asks you.

The Meeting
Spend the first few minutes of your first face-to-face meeting setting an agenda, identifying possible outcomes and getting agreement on the length of the first session. This will help focus your time, set criteria for measurable results and keep you in charge. The professional should be able to define the basic issues and then estimate time, terms and fees.

The Agreement
It’s wise to get things in writing, including a work plan and timeline. Many professionals will provide a letter of agreement but don’t expect consultants, like a computer or management consultant, to provide a full analysis for free. A thorough analysis of your business situation and expert recommendations are worth paying for in advance of a solution being implemented. This important step, if done properly, can actually save the overall expenditure of certain projects and should be included in the total budget for the project.

Using professionals in your business is not a sign of weakness! It is an indication of sound management practices. As a business grows, staff can be added to replace outside experts or you can continue to use contract professionals.

Are you all alone?

Being the owner of your own small business is a fantastic undertaking.  Here is where you prove your concept, sell your product for a profit and become a social entrepreneur, changing the world one transaction at a time.  Yet, being a small business owner CAN be isolating and sometimes lonely. alone However, there IS one simple and successful support strategy that is free, motivational and really helpful from a practical perspective.  This is a solution that will provide information, motivation, and access to resources.  This is a solution you can develop without spending a lot of time and money on professional advisors and/or consultants.

Solving Isolation

All business owners need personal support, access to accurate information, and to be around people who can motivate and inspire. Business is an interdependent environment of vendors, competitors, and resources. Business owners need to set up support systems that are appropriate (for level and content), easy to use (accessible) and timely (available when and where they are most needed).

The first step and easiest solution is to find a support partner who will help make you accountable.  The support partner is your unconditional “business friend”. Ideally, this is someone also in business like you who can listen, give emotional support for your business issues, and can provide constructive feedback on business dilemmas and opportunities.

The relationship is bi-directional – each support partner helps the other. You may agree to meet weekly, catch-up, share problems and successes, and then use your partner as an objective reviewer for your plans of the week. The meeting should be a check-in for ongoing support and follow-up. It is also key that this be on-going and long-term (e.g. 6 months) so that your support partner gets exposed to the issues and understands the context and the players in your world. Your meetings with your support partner can be a catalyst for positive change and an opportunity to talk discreetly about business issues outside of your own business environment.

Roberto felt that getting his business marketing efforts off the ground was so difficult he ignored many of the key initial steps. He felt the isolation and frustration and had no one to really talk to that could relate to his issues of time management, cash flow and making internal decisions. Then he found Maria who was in a very similar situation, yet in a totally different business. They liked each other, respected each others’ opinions and set-up a weekly review meeting over coffee every Friday when they could talk to each other, give each other feedback, and commit to an action for each week. These meetings continued weekly for many months and were supported by the occasional e-mail and phone call.

All you need to starts is to find ONE person in business like yourself.  This will need to be someone you like and trust…and is willing to help you just as you will help them.  Try it out and see if this will help you build your business and get the support you need to keep going and flourish!