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Small Business Center

Free Mentors for the Life of Your Small Business: How SCORE Works

December 1, 2023

Advice from someone who has been there themselves can help entrepreneurs avoid pitfalls, navigate challenges and gain insights that otherwise would take years of trial and error to acquire. A 2013 survey by The UPS Store found that 70% of small businesses that received mentoring survived more than five years, double the survival rate of non-mentored businesses. The same survey found that 88% of business owners with a mentor said having one was invaluable.

But it can be hard to find the right mentor. The idea of approaching a professional at a networking event and directly soliciting mentorship is daunting, if not outright uncomfortable. That’s where SCORE — a nonprofit that provides free mentoring, resources and workshops to small business owners and entrepreneurs — steps in, pairing you with a compatible mentor who suits your specific business needs. SCORE’s volunteer mentors, themselves experienced business professionals, provide guidance for those starting their small businesses and those looking to take their businesses to the next level.

SCORE CEO Bridget Weston talked with ICSC Small Business Center contributing editor Rebecca Meiser about the process for getting matched, what to expect from your mentor and why a lot of entrepreneurs are asking the wrong questions when it comes to the success of their small business.

Can you start by giving a general overview of SCORE?

SCORE is a nationwide network of volunteer business mentors who provide that been-there-done-that expertise, advice, counseling and guidance to anyone looking to start or grow a small business. SCORE has been around for nearly 60 years and is a resource partner of the Small Business Administration. We really focus on helping small businesses achieve whatever their success is. We have access to the right information, resources and advice that will get that small business owner the right answer for them. We also have education both in person and online that helps to supplement that one-on-one mentoring advice to make sure that people have the answers that they need.

What industries do SCORE mentors cover?

Because SCORE has a nationwide network of about 10,000 mentors, we have experts in every major industry and every different business topic. We have, for instance, experts in accounting, marketing and in human resources. We also have experts in restaurants, consulting and manufacturing. So whatever it is that best suits your needs as a small business owner, we have a mentor who can help.

“If you have a business question or challenge or are looking to grow or simply feel like you are alone, that’s when you reach out to SCORE.”

How do you get matched?

You can go on score.org and answer a few questions about what your business is like what sorts of questions you have, whether you prefer to meet someone in person or virtually. Then we will show you who some of the best mentors are that fit your profile. You can read through the profiles and pick the person that’s best suited for you. The other way you can get matched is to say: “You know, I don’t really know what I need, but here’s my biggest business questions.” We have client intake coordinators who will review your request and assign you to a mentor based on who is available and the expertise they think will match what you need.

You don’t just have to work with that one mentor. Because we are this connected network, your mentor can encourage you to talk with other mentors, to learn from other workshops and even to go outside of the SCORE network for advice. Our goal is to make sure that the clients get what’s best for them.

What’s the cost of these services?

It’s free. There’s no catch, no ulterior motive. Our volunteers do this because they want to give back and care about the small businesses that are in our communities. We also receive a grant from Congress to help support the operational aspects of SCORE. Sometimes there is a nominal fee for workshops, mostly just to cover the space of the rental or if there’s food being served, things like that.

How do you know if the business mentors are qualified? Are they screened, for instance? Do they go through training?

Anyone who applies to become a SCORE volunteer goes through a provisional onboarding period, which includes taking our mentoring methodology certification, sitting in on several mentoring sessions, signing our code of ethics and taking some other training each year. Mentors also have to recertify for that code of ethics each year to make sure that they are up to speed on everything that is required to be the best mentor they can be.

Do mentors have to have a certain number of years in the business to qualify?

Everyone has an expertise that they can speak to and help others on, no matter how long they’ve been in business. You would, for example, be an excellent person to help people write and share their story. Others are excellent accountants. So no, there is no minimum requirement other than a commitment to the organization to help others and to follow the standards that we have.

Do you sign up for a certain number of hours when you agree to be a mentor?

We don’t ask for a minimum time commitment. What we do ask for is that when you are mentoring clients, you reach out to them multiple times and that you will be a person who walks alongside the client for as long as they’d like. Our tagline is “For the life of your business.”

If you’re considering seeking a mentor, when should you reach out to SCORE: when you’re first thinking about starting a business or if you’re up and running and looking for advice?

We help everyone from “I have an idea on the back of the napkin at 3 a.m.” to “I have been in business for 30 years, and I’m looking to sell my business” and everything in between. If you have a business question or challenge or are looking to grow or simply feel like you are alone, that’s when you reach out to SCORE. Our goal is to make sure that every small business owner knows that they are not alone.

Is loneliness a big problem from which small business owners suffer?

It can be. Entrepreneurs are incredible people who are talented, brilliant and resilient, but it can be lonely trying to do it all on your own. SCORE is not going to do the work for you, but our mentors will be your sounding board to help decide things like do you bring in that contractor or that next employee, do you buy that second location? It helps to have a sounding board so you see the blind spots better and to make sure that you’re looking at everything from the different angles that you need.

How quickly do people get matched?

48 hours after you put in a request is our goal.

What should people expect from these first few mentoring sessions? Is there a general template for how they work?

The first session is a getting-to-know-you session. You should expect to be asked a lot of questions so the mentor can really get to understand you, your business and your goals. Many times, the question that a small business owner is asking is not the actual problem, so it’s like peeling an onion. We just have to keep looking and digging deeper and deeper. For instance, the No. 1 question we get is: “I need funding to fund X.” But maybe what you could do is tweak your accounts payable so that the time line is shorter and therefore you actually have cash to do [what you need]. We really try to look at the problem holistically and consider all aspects.

After you finish your first session, there’s going to be homework, potentially on both sides. A SCORE mentor can be an accountability partner, so you may be asked to research your competitors or look into these five funding options and then come back and talk about that and see what makes the most sense.

Is there anything you should do or prepare beforehand to make sure these sessions are as successful as possible?

Any small business owner, in preparing to work with a SCORE mentor, can [gather] some things. If you have a business plan, for instance, bring that or share that. If you have your financials, have those ready to be able to answer questions. You also just want to come with ideas about what you want out of your business. What are your goals? The answers and the advice that mentors give will vary depending on if your goal, say, is to sell your handcrafted jewelry on Etsy as a side business because it’s a hobby you love. That’s a great goal, but we’re not then going to suggest you buy a storefront. If your goal is to be the next Tiffany & Co., well, then we will have different advice. So the small business owner really needs to think about what success looks like to them and also what’s realistic for them. Do they have the support system that can take on whatever their goals are? Are they ready to commit to this journey of entrepreneurism?  Those are the types of things that would help a person get in the mindset for a meeting with their mentor.

Is there an average number of months or years that you’re matched for?

No! We are here for the life of their business, so whether you have one question or 1,000 questions, we are here. We have people who have been in business for 20 years and have used their mentor for all of those 20 years. We have people who have invited their mentors to their children’s weddings and who spend holidays together, and so it really is what you make of it and how it best helps you to do what you need to do.

Do you have any protections in place to keep confidential information private and safe?

Everything you share with your mentor is confidential within SCORE. Our code of ethics is really strict about that. No mentor can share [information] outside or act on that information in any way, shape or form. Our mentors also never receive compensation. Everything that is shared with SCORE is protected.

How is SCORE different from The SCORE Foundation?

The SCORE Foundation is the philanthropic arm of SCORE. They work with funders, both corporations and individual donors, who want to supplement the congressional funding to support our programmatic needs.

The SCORE Foundation recently partnered with Phillips Edison & Co., one of the nation’s largest owners and operators of grocery-anchored shopping centers. What does that look like?

The sponsorship with Phillips Edison is about offering SCORE mentors to their small business clients/tenants. They have a dedicated, co-branded mentor registration page solely for the use of their tenants. [The partnership] is a targeted effort by PECO to provide their tenants with clear and instant access to the valued resources SCORE provides. We can also report and track the results for PECO and the tenants. PECO is also sponsoring real estate-related content to help small businesses. Those content pieces will be on score.org.

You said the most common question small business owners have is about funding. Are there other common questions that come up?

How to get money, how to get clients — those are the two big questions. Recently, especially with the pandemic and the workforce shifts, though, it’s been how to retain and attract employees.

If someone reading this decides they’d like to be a mentor. What should they do? How should they proceed?

You’d apply on score.org and fill out the application. A coach, someone who has been through the process before, would reach out to you and help you through it. We also have a volunteer intake coordinator who would say: “OK, here’s the training you need to take, here’s the code of ethics, here’s the mentoring methodology.” Once you go through all of those steps, you would also be connected with your local SCORE organization to get to know your fellow volunteers and get started.

We’ve talked a lot about the mentoring aspect of SCORE. Can you talk about what the supplementary options look like? And should you do one or the other first?

We have online webinars that are both live and on demand. The people presenting are experts in various topics or industries, everything from how AI can help your business to e-commerce tips to doing business with the government and how to improve your profitability. We also have local educational events and opportunities through one of our 200-plus chapters across the country where you can get information from a subject matter expert but also interact with your peers face to face and get to know others in the community that you’re operating in and serving.

Additionally, we have a robust website, score.org, which helps to provide current, up-to-date information, resources and templates that can help any business owner to achieve their goals. We have everything from a business plan template to a cash flow-projections template to a blog about how to retain employees in these tough times.

What we know works best — and what we see the most success from — is clients who take advantage of all our services.

Small Business Center

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