The first thing to invest in when you start a business…and it’s free

When I started my business, the sheer amount of paperwork, red tape, fees, and legal considerations was staggering. Each time I faced what seemed like an enormous to-do list, I reminded myself to just tackle one thing at a time. There is one thing, however, that I was so glad I did early on – find a mentor. Now, there are tons of people offering one-on-one mentoring and I’m sure some of them are great, but I can’t imagine anyone better than my Score Mentor, Ellen.

How does Score Mentoring work?

SCORE is a nonprofit partner of the US Small Business Administration. They have a huge network of volunteer business experts, and the mentoring is FREE, no matter how many times you visit your mentor. Doesn’t it sound too good to be true? It’s still hard for me to believe.

What if I don’t live next to an active chapter?

You don’t have to use the chapter closest to you. I didn’t. I travel 45 minutes each way in yucky traffic to see my mentor. They also have remote mentors you can meet with over video chat. I would highly recommend face-to-face meetings though. Note: during the Covid-19 pandemic, mentors may temporarily switch to only virtual meetings.

What is the process?

You can find all the details at I live outside Washington DC, so I started out on their site ( Click “Find a Mentor” and then “Search a Mentor by Area of Expertise and Name”. I scoured the bios of different mentors until I found one that seemed to connect. Click “Contact [Mentor’s] Chapter” and fill out the form. My mentor contacted me directly and we set up our first meeting.

Meet Ellen

Ellen was the founder and sole proprietor of a successful, award-winning, local interior design firm for more than forty years. She is an expert in strategy, marketing and sales. She wasn’t in the exact same field that I am, but they are similar, and she is able to translate her business know-how to my industry.

Ongoing mentoring

Each mentoring session is one hour. For some reason, I thought this was a one-time thing, but after we met, Ellen scheduled a followup meeting. Now we meet every three months for two back-to-back meetings because one hour isn’t enough to update, hash out, and plan. Also, if something important comes up in between meetings, I email Ellen and she always gets back to me.

Why I’ve loved it

Education: Ellen has challenged me to think like a businessperson, which is not always a forte with creatives. She doesn’t often give me homework, because she lets me lead the way with how I want to explore and grow my business, but the things she has asked me to prepare and consider have been invaluable and worthwhile.

Accountability: there have been some issues that I have faced, and I’m tempted to take the easy route that might not be the best business sense route. I actually feel like I have a little Ellen on my shoulder looking at me and expecting me to do the right thing. I also remind myself I’ll have to tell her about it at our next meeting, and I don’t want to disappoint her!

Customized: this isn’t a one-size fits all relationship. My mentor has been with me through exploring my different business ideas, shelving options that aren’t a good fit right now, negotiating partnerships, and saying no to options that won’t be beneficial.

Someone to hash out with: my friends and family are great listeners, but they’re not trained business experts who do this all the time. As an example, I remember thinking that if I needed to grow, I really needed to outsource work, but what would I outsource? When I made a list, it was short and I felt like I still couldn’t do everything on my side of the list.

Knowing this was a critical factor to growth, we spent most of one of our meetings discussing this. I couldn’t believe how long my outsourcing list was afterward. This led to the hiring of two employees, because I had tangible things I could have them do. I just needed someone to help me work it all out.

A cheerleader: Once something kind of intriguing came up, so I emailed Ellen. She called me excited for me and willing to talk about the possibilities. At each meeting, she follows up. After our meetings, I feel like a rock star. She applauds the progress I’ve made and is interested and encouraging about the next steps. Who doesn’t need that kind of cheerleader in their business?

Some tips

Be respectful and grateful for your mentor’s time. One danger of having something “free” is that people sometimes aren’t as conscientious about it. Be on time and make every effort to keep your appointments. Good mentors are in high demand. Someone could have used your time slot, and your mentor isn’t doing this because he or she doesn’t have anything else to do.

Prepare. At least try what you’ve discussed at the last meeting and come prepared with questions and what’s on the horizon.

Submit the feedback that SCORE sends you after your meeting.

Be humble enough to take advantage of this amazing benefit to your business. I know photographers who seem like they are at the top of their field who still have mentors.

Keep trying. I’m sure not every mentor is as amazing as Ellen. Do your research and find one that fits your personality and business. If it isn’t a good fit, you can request another mentor.

Mentoring is only for businesses in the US. If you’re outside the US, please let me know ( if your country offers something similar and I’ll add it to this post.

If you’re in the US, let me know if you try it out – I’d love to hear what you think!

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