John Friess, like a lot of entrepreneurs, needed a sounding board when he and his brother Mark started a health-education company, Portland, Ore.'s Wired.MD in 2000. So he began hitting business events, only to notice some of the same faces in attendance. Friess, who sold Wired.MD seven and a half years ago and is on his second start-up, started chatting up these fellow entrepreneurs. These parking-lot talks quickly developed into Starve Ups, an entrepreneur group that provides peer mentoring to founders and management teams of start-ups. "Mentoring was readily available," recalls Friess. "Access to funding was available. So was hiring expertise. Direct peer mentoring was the missing link. We needed an environment in which founder could speak to founder, where we could talk to each other about core issues about our businesses." After the first meeting at music-licensing company Rumblefish, Friess and his seven co-conspirators hashed out some guidelines. Members had to be founders or management leaders of start-ups. That meant no service providers and franchisers. Other rules: no fees, a strict confidentiality policy and a membership cap of 20. Friess discovered the need to create his own entrepreneur group, but there are a slew of existing ones you can tap into. Just keep these seven things in mind when searching. What are your goals? Before you check out any group, let alone sign on, you need to figure out what you and your company want from this network. Are you at the start-up stage and grappling with those issues? Are you more established but want to grow your business? Are you looking to learn from peers? Do you want an organization that is more social in nature or more business-like?
For example, Friess felt he needed a group with a strict confidentiality policy so he could honestly talk about his company's challenges when seeking advice. Shellye Archambeau, CEO of Metricstream, turned to the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs & Executives for the camaraderie and access to capital and resources that she could not get on her own. "By coming together as a group, we are able to attract the best people to spend time with us," she says. "We spent time with David Thomson, author of Blueprint to a Billion: 7 Essentials to Achieve Exponential Growth (Wiley). We heard from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on how government works." Only after you've gotten your priorities in place should you seriously start to look. Do you even qualify? Many of these groups have restrictions or requirements. For example, to join the Entrepreneurs' Organization, which once had Michael Dell as a member, you need to be under 50 years old when applying and your business must have revenue of at least $1 million. To get into FWE&E, you must be an experienced female business owner with an established business and be nominated by a member. To enjoy the perks of the Young Presidents' Organization, you have to apply before you're 45, employ at least 50 full-time workers and produce revenue of at least $6 million. Shop around: Don't be shy. Hit up a friend if he belongs to a group that you want to check out and be his guest. Attend the free event to learn more about what the group has to offer. Never commit unless you know the group's focus and the types of members it attracts. One of the biggest mistakes you can make when joining an entrepreneur group is not choosing one with the right people, says Jon Gillespie-Brown, author of So You Want to Be an Entrepreneur(Capstone). "If you join a group with 'quality' members, then they will help you develop and grow and add value to your life. However, if the people are lower-caliber, they could easily be a drag and a negative influence."
Be realistic: About your time, that is. Let's face it, starting and running a business is life-consuming work. You have to be honest with yourself and with the organization about what you can bring to the table. Many of these groups meet locally at least once a month. But the time spent will be worth it, says Cameron Herold, founder of leadership DVD company BackPocket COO. "You have to give up time to learn to be an entrepreneur, and you'll get it back in spades." Proceed with caution: Sure, many of these groups have confidentiality policies. Still, make sure you're comfortable with others in the meeting before getting into the gritty of your company. "You go to these groups and you're learning that someone is having an affair on his wife, or her CFO is stealing from her," explains Herold, who grew 1-800-GOT-JUNK from 14 employees to 300 while he was COO. "Some pretty salacious stuff can come out. The risk is if people talk. Still, the more you start to share with the others in your group, the more you get back. Just make sure you understand the protocols." Stand firm: Some groups have an aggressive "service provider" culture, warns Gillespie-Brown. "Groups can sometimes 'enable' pressure-selling to members." That's why shopping around may prevent you from falling into that trap. Make time: Being an entrepreneur can get pretty lonely at times. You're the boss, the one who must rally the troops during hard times and tamp down your own fears and misgivings. Says Gillespie-Brown, "For this reason, I believe that most of these groups are very helpful to aspiring entrepreneurs, if for no other reason than they enable entrepreneurs to meet and share their experience."