I want to get a couple of products patented and on the market this year. People who have already done this could give me good advice on patenting, marketing, distribution, and finding investors. Where can I find successful entrepreneurs who can help?
-- V.W., Columbia, S.C.
Many entrepreneurs are eager to help new business owners find success, either through networking, mentoring, or even investing in startup firms. Fortunately, meeting them is not difficult and it can be a powerful way to obtain vital information and contacts in your industry. "Networking takes an investment of your time, but it can be a very sound investment with excellent returns," says Palm Desert (Calif.) small business consultant Dee Helfgott.
"Examine your current network to determine who might be helpful in introducing you to people with experience in patenting, marketing, distribution, and locating investors. Identify local groups whose membership includes entrepreneurs, such as the Chamber of Commerce. Trade and financial associations can be helpful as well," she says.
Nonprofits Can Provide Advice
Once you have identified individuals and organizations that you want to contact, decide what goals you have -- your reasons for contacting them -- and prepare specific questions you would like to ask. That way, you won't feel like you're spinning your wheels and you won't waste busy entrepreneurs' time without getting solid information from them.
Robin Stein, co-owner of PortaMEe, a New York City maker of baby carriers, joined a women entrepreneurs group when she was getting ready to launch her company in 2006. She also got substantial advice and guidance from her local chapter of the nonprofit SCORE organization after seeing its advertisement at her community center. "The ad said they run all kinds of free or low-cost seminars, and free was in my budget. That's how the relationship started," Stein says.
Charles Sobel, her adviser at SCORE NYC, reviewed her business plan and helped her improve it, recommended a contractor for her Web marketing and Web site design, and helped her through the patenting process.
Tap Into Your State's Development Office
"I met a slew of fantastic guys at SCORE, many of whom had worked in manufacturing, importing, and the children's business. All of them had different words of wisdom for me," Stein says. She met with SCORE advisers probably a dozen times during her 18-month startup phase and never paid a dime. "These guys are all former executives with a plethora of experience and they're jazzed about new businesses," she recalls. "Their enthusiasm and encouragement was fantastic."
Small business consultant Paul O'Reilly of Los Angeles recommends that you contact your state's economic development organization. "They provide technical assistance and access to capital. And they sometimes have peer groups that provide a setting for small business owners to work together in small groups to share expertise and insights and experience with each other," he says. "For example, one entrepreneur may have expertise in marketing, while another may have raised capital or obtained a patent. These economic development organizations may also be able to refer you directly to a previous client they know that has already obtained capital and a patent."
South Carolina has an extensive directory of statewide entrepreneurial resources. The U.S. Small Business Administration also has a startup section on its Web site. Finally, Nancy Fox, president of Fox Coaching Associates in Mamaroneck, N.Y, recommends The Entrepreneur's Guide to Patents, Copyrights, Trademarks, Trade Secrets & Licensing by Jill Gilbert (Berkley Trade, 2004) as a general guideline for patenting.