What motivates business advisers to help

Many seasoned professionals are eager to lend expertise to small businesses.

June 7, 2010
Business Management

Jeff Hunter, 48, of Troy, Ohio, grew up in a family business, waiting on customers and sharpening saws at his father's industrial supply store. Now a partner in consulting firm Arete Management Solutions, he says, "I see entrepreneurs who are often underresourced and underexperienced. I have a strong passion for helping out any way I can."

Ken Keegans, 45, is a finance expert and strategic planner based in St. Louis. After 20 years as a management executive and an entrepreneur, he wants to help business owners identify alternate solutions to common problems.

Hunter and Keegans are examples of the many successful individuals who would like to become advisers—formal or informal—to small business owners, Bloomberg Businessweek reports. Some hope to turn an advisery board position into a full-time job. Others are scouting for promising business investment opportunities. Still others have struggled through the early years of their own entrepreneurial ventures and simply want to give back.

"I was lucky enough to have a mentor when I started a business and it gave me the opportunity to bounce ideas off of somebody," Keegans says. "People sometimes have come up in one industry and they have blinders on. They don't realize there are other processes or software applications or other ways they could be doing things."

While Keegans' interest in advising entrepreneurs is not strictly charitable, he says, his motivation is also not primarily financial. "I hope to help some people circumvent those early mistakes that are so common," he says.
Jeff Hopmayer, a serial entrepreneur, knows how difficult the startup phase can be, especially when a small business founder has no access to outside advisers—or is too independent to take their advice. "I hired really good people early on, but I never let them do their jobs. I thought an entrepreneur had to wear all the hats," he says. Hopmayer recalls being so stressed out from micromanaging that "I used to dive under the desk when someone came looking for me."

He spent a decade in the wine and spirits industry after a stint working in his own bakery, where an early client was an obscure, 10-outlet coffee shop called Starbucks (SBUX). Now officially retired at the age of 46, Hopmayer says it would be pure joy to take on an advisery position.

"I think it would be fun to help guide other people and see them learn from some of the experiences I went through," He says. "If they'll embrace the help, it can be much more rewarding for them. So many companies have tremendously great ideas, but the founders are surrounded by the same people all the time. They're operating within a vacuum."

People like Hopmayer are not as rare as might be expected, says William Bubenick, 30, who is developing an online matchmaking service for entrepreneurs and would-be advisery board members. He plans to formally launch the venture later this year.

Bubenick has been surprised, he says, by the quality of the nearly 1,000 potential advisers who have expressed interest in participating. "It's encouraging to see so many people who want to help small businesses. With the economy the way it is, a lot of people are being forced into becoming entrepreneurs and there's going to be a surge in that," he says.

Of course, Bubenick's advertisements, e-mails, and word-of-mouth marketing have turned up some would-be advisers who are blatant money-grubbers or just plain unqualified. "I have had to get rid of some bad apples," he says.
Bubenick has been surprised at how many longtime corporate executives are motivated by curiosity about what cutting edge entrepreneurs are doing. Others are excited about getting in early on what may turn out to be a hot property.

Some want to boost their résumés and experience levels for possible forays into their own entrepreneurial ventures. "When you get involved helping a small business, you're going to learn from them as much as you add with your own experience," he says.

The idea for Bubenick's startup, BoardMyBiz.com, came from his own experience as a partner in a telecom startup in 2006. "We had a hell of a time trying to find board members and then when we actually approached some, they were looking for formal presentations," Bubenick says. "We had something [loosely] put together but not a corporate presentation like they were probably used to."

Once he and his partners did put together an advisery board, it was a great boost to the company, he says: "It made a tremendous difference to get new perspectives and be challenged on the ideas we were using." Bubenick figured there were lots of other business owners across the country struggling to start and grow companies who could benefit from finding the right advisers.

Hunter, who consults for companies ranging in size from $5 million to $50 million, sees needs every day. "In the case of startups, they don't know about the free resources that are available online and through the government. For companies past the startup stage, most don't have the right people working for them. They might intuitively understand that, but they underappreciate how important that is," he says.

Advisery board members at small companies can sometimes serve the crucial role of playing "bad cop" when tough decisions must be made, says Hunter. "A lot of business owners are technical experts but they don't have the best people skills. Having a third party come in makes it easier because you can say: 'My business adviser is recommending this.' It takes the heat off the entrepreneur."

While most would-be advisers, including Hunter, cannot afford to work without remuneration for a small business, he is one of many that Bubenick has come across who have been strongly motivated by the financial crisis. "Small businesses are what I believe to be the backbone of our country's economy," Hunter says. "I'm very patriotic and it pains me to see these people struggling right now."