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Do Small Business Mentoring Programs Work?

It's easy to be cynical about programs like the one rolled out Friday under the co-sponsorship of UBS Wealth Management. The effort by, UBS Wealth Management, an arm of the Swiss banking giant that provides financial advice to the wealthy, is described as "philanthropic" in a press release, but it's clearly just as much an effort to raise the bank's profile and promote it as a thought leader among just the sort of successful business owners it most wants to court.

The UBS deal, which it's doing with former President Bill Clinton's foundation, will give 10 fast-growing business owners six months of free strategic financial and business advice. But so what? Will that help them succeed? Or will it help UBS succeed? Without weighing in on the wisdom of UBS's marketing move, there is evidence that mentoring programs can help small businesses in significant ways -- but it matters who's offering the help and how:


  • A sizable body of research upholds the idea that mentoring can help entrepreneurs. However, one study from the University of Paisley in Scotland, not surprisingly, suggests it seems to work best when the mentors are former entrepreneurs, as opposed to, say, stockbrokers.
  • Government-sponsored mentoring programs, such as those federal agencies set up to help small companies become contractors, have long-established track records of helping smaller firms navigate the complex sands of selling to Uncle Sam. For instance, the Department of Defense's mentoring program paired mega-contractor Lockheed Martin with protégé ISYS Technologies, of Littleton, Colorado, in 2002, when the company had only three employees. By 2009, ISYS had grown to over 100 employees and won an SBA Award of Excellence in Administration. Today, ISYS competes for its own prime contracts in addition to subcontracting with Lockheed.
  • By exposing small business owners to the wisdom of veterans, mentoring can give neophytes some of the self-confidence that comes with experience, as one study from Monash University in Australia noted. However, the same researcher found, that increase in self-confidence is less likely to come with growth in sales and employment at mentored companies.
  • Small business mentoring programs differ widely in their quality and in the level of support the mentor commits to. A high bar in this regard is set by Deluxe Corp.'s Project Rev program. This is a year-long lab that helps small businesses with marketing efforts. The company selects mentees from hundreds of small business applicants. In addition to a Deluxe marketing advisor, help building a website and other boosts, mentees got $5,000 to spend on marketing. That's a mentor who means it. The check printing and small business marketing company is looking for applicants for its second Project Rev program now.

If you're interested in getting a mentor for your own small business, one place to look is within the large organizations you do business with -- the Department of Defense, for example. Many of these have internal efforts to cultivate small business suppliers, often in order to qualify for government contracts. Another good source is your personal network, which BNET blogger and Brazen Careerist writer Penelope Trunk describes in a column aimed at corporate ladder-climbers but easily adapted to entrepreneurs.

Mark Henricks is an Austin, Texas, freelance journalist whose reporting on business, technology and other topics has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, and other leading publications. Learn more about him at The Article Authority. Follow him on Twitter @bizmyths.

Image courtesy of Flickr user prayitno, CC2.0