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."
Lan Nguyen is a freelance writer based in New York City. She has written for the New York Daily News, The Wall Street Journal, Worth magazine and Star magazine.

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