04/18/2014 12:10 EDT | Updated 06/18/2014 05:59 EDT

Mentors play important role in keeping entrepreneurs focused and accountable

TORONTO - It may have been a love of cats or rock climbing that first gave shape to a quirky business idea but, for many entrepreneurs, the difference between success and failure of their dream company often comes down to the support and advice they've received from mentors.

That was the case for Cheryl Palermo, a rock climbing enthusiast who runs Kidz Rock, a climbing gym for kids in the Greater Toronto Area.

Palermo, 33, initially opened a climbing gym for adults and children, which she ran for two and a half years. She closed it down but, two years later, she opened Kidz Rock, a kids-only facility that hosts birthday parties and group events. For Palermo, it made sense as children were the largest revenue source in her initial venture. Her instincts paid off: Kidz Rock is now going into its sixth year.

When it came to making big decisions or rebounding from the disappointments that can follow, Palermo said she relied on the guidance she received from a mentor - her father - who is also a small business owner.

She says one of her favourite quotes from her dad, which he repeated often when Palermo lost the first business, was "it will all be all right in the end. If it's not all right, it's not the end."

"I'm very grateful to have inherited his (and his father's) entrepreneurial drive, as I can say from experience it is not a learned skill, but a trait that I was born with that was nurtured because I had a great mentor along the way," said Palermo, who also studied small business management at Seneca College in Toronto.

She feels having a mentor compensates for the lack of a boss or co-workers to discuss ideas or share problems.

"An entrepreneur's mind works different from others. You can bounce things off your spouse or your friend or your partner or your cousin but, if they're not an entrepreneur, you don't get it. I don't know how I would have done it without him. I still use him to this day."

In the case of Michelle Furbacher, who is developing a cat cafe in Vancouver, support came from Embers Ventures, a small business development program.

"The class has been so helpful in terms of networking and meeting other like-minded entrepreneurs," she said. "We've become sort of a team of mentors, helping each other out and throwing ideas back and forth. The course is really helping me get a solid grasp on all the aspects that go into building a business."

Her Catfe, set to open in September, will allow cat lovers to pay an hourly rate to surf the web, read, or attend movie nights and workshops while socializing with some furry friends. The Vancouver Orphan Kitten Rescue Association will provide cats for the venture, all of whom will be adoptable.

Furbacher, 37, says she decided go with what may have initially seemed like an off-the-wall idea because she saw a need for what she describes as part "glorified cat shelter" and a way for cat lovers to get their "kitty fix." While the cafes are wildly popular in Japan, there are none in Canada. A crowdfunding campaign launched to help cover start-up costs has already raised more than $2,500 towards its $50,000 goal since it began last week.

According to Jeremy O'Krafka, a professor with the Entrepreneurship and Small Business program at Seneca College, and the founder of MENTORnetwork.CA, entrepreneurs like Palermo and Furbacher are part of a growing trend in the economy. There are about 2.5 million entrepreneurs in Canada who, as small business owners, contribute more than 30 per cent of the country's gross domestic product.

"Low start-up costs, social media and options like crowdfunding campaigns also mean it's "never been easier to start a business," he said.

The bigger challenge is finding something that's viable, validating it by talking to potential customers, and then being willing to take the risk - because even though it's never been easier, there's still a very high failure rate for entrepreneurs.

O'Krafka started MENTORnetwork.CA after having a hard time finding a mentor himself several years ago.

At the time, he was browsing the dating site eHarmony, and realized that it was a much more effective model of connecting with people, so he decided to create what he describes as "the eHarmony of mentoring websites."

"Once you're actually up and running a business, to have somebody to give you that 10,000-foot view of what you're going through can make all the difference in the world," O'Krafka said.

For him, a lot of the value around working with mentors is about being held accountable.

"One of the reasons why some of us get into entrepreneurship is because we don't like to be told what to do, but one of the downsides of that is that it also gives you an easy out not to stick to your plan," he said.

"By sharing your plan with a mentor who you work with over a long period of time, meeting with them on a monthly basis gives you that check-in point to have them hold you accountable for what you said you were going to do."

Dave Wilkin, 26, is a self-described "serial entrepreneur" and founder of Ten Thousand Coffees, a website that looks to bridge the gap between business leaders and the younger generation, setting them up on coffee dates so that they can share ideas and expand their networks.

He says part of the challenge is finding the right mentor, and connecting mentors with young people who can provide them with useful insight into their brand or could be an interesting potential hire.

Wilkin says his own career began with a conversation over a coffee, after he invited someone he met at a conference out for a chat. That person told him to create a business name, get business cards, and start talking to people. If he wanted to be an entrepreneur, she said, he should go start a company. Wilkin turned down a job offer and did just that.

Ten Thousand Coffees, a later venture, was launched in January with 300 experts, and it now has more than 700 companies in more than 30 industries as members.

"It's no question millennials are more entrepreneurial than anybody else, but what they need is the mentor. But mentorship is an outcome, it's not a first step."

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