Valley mentor group helps business startups thrive: Aim to counter 7 out of 10 failure stat

Thursday, March 13, 2014
With the help of the local nonprofit Valley Venture Mentors, potential entrepreneurs can make strides in their quest to achieve their dreams.

Jane Janovsky of South Hadley is a good example. A graphic designer and teacher in the South Hadley school system, she says she always wanted to be an entrepreneur.

In the summer of 2013, Janovsky and a friend cooked up batches of jam after power-picking buckets of blueberries in a single afternoon. They gave away the jarred treats as gifts, but friends and neighbors began asking for more. After a breakfast eatery in Granby featured their jam on its menu, Janovsky and her friend began thinking about prices and labels, and other matters.

But they found they needed business expertise.

An acquaintance told Janovsky about Valley Venture Mentors, which pairs emerging entrepreneurs with volunteer mentors. Janovsky went to a monthly meeting in downtown Springfield, where she found the atmosphere warm and welcoming, with generous offerings of food, wine, camaraderie and networking opportunities.

It was just the right kind of help to kick-start her fledgling business.

Today her business, Just Jane’s, offers treats like Philharmonic Pear and Tropical Mango Tango, selling home-cooked jams that incorporate as much local produce as possible through her website, just-janes.com.

Janovsky has been working since October with her primary mentor, Dan Whitford, a former naval officer and nuclear scientist. She called Whitford “an amazing, amazing mentor and friend for life,” who she said has guided her through many aspects of business development. He was especially helpful during the grueling task of writing a comprehensive business plan.

“I cannot believe how much help there is for emerging businesses in the Pioneer Valley, and especially within the VVM,” Janovsky said.

Cooperation key

Scott Foster, Valley Venture Mentor co-founder and president, said a cooperative spirit is built into the program, and he believes business startups need all the encouragement they can get. Seven out of 10 new businesses are doomed to fail, he said. The idea is to create a “vibrant economic ecosystem” by identifying and nurturing startups with the potential to thrive. Although the focus is on western Massachusetts entrepreneurs, people from all over the region are welcome to participate. Some businesspeople come from as far away as Vermont.

VVM recently received a grant of almost $150,000 from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, a welcome infusion of cash that will help the program add more staff.

Mentors work with participants in six-month cycles, offering guidance on all aspects of business development: branding, name changes and technical support, to name a few.

Prospective members must apply to the program, a process that begins with an online application. The in-person audition, called a pitch, is a short, fast-paced presentation. Although Janovsky was nervous about making her pitch to a crowded room, the atmosphere was “supportive and loving,” and she did not experience “stomach-wrenching” tension and conflict.

Mike Mullen, 21, an undergraduate student in finance at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, joined his father, Dave Mullen, in making a pitch recently for Kloudbook, a global Internet directory that will allow people to share their email addresses and cellphone numbers. The idea for Kloudbook occurred to the elder Mullen last year when he grew increasingly frustrated trying to find cellphone numbers for a family reunion.

As someone who dreaded public speaking in high school, the younger Mullen was anxious about pitching in front of such a big crowd, but after several months in the mentoring program, he said he is now a confident presenter who seeks out opportunities to speak and has won cash prizes at several local pitch competitions.

Entrepreneurs who make it through the first audition round are invited to pitch camp, designed to help participants hone their presentation skills. “There’s a real art to pitching,” Foster said. Mentors provide “loving but critical” feedback in small groups called breakout sessions.

The pitching process helps participants to figure out what kind of mentoring they need. An emerging entrepreneur may need help with website development or a referral to a computer expert.

“It could be that they have a great product but haven’t reached the right customers,” Foster said. “Sometimes, the best help we can give is to let an entrepreneur know their idea is bad.”

Skills honed in pitch camp are applicable to real-life situations, Janovsky said. “Learning how to give a presentation can help a startup business in getting a bank loan, for example,” she said.

Participants are assigned a primary mentor but receive general guidance in mentoring circles and frequently brainstorm with each other between meetings. This personal networking creates a cascading effect, with one helpful connection leading to another. These connections helped the Mullens to find technological support for Kloudbook. A computer science class at UMass is currently working on developing Kloudbook’s website. This support has been “unbelievably helpful,” Mike Mullen said. He hopes to test a prototype website this spring and officially launch the site in the fall.

For Janovsky, involvement in the mentorship program helped her retool her business plan when her partnership with another entrepreneur dissolved.

The monthly meetings provide information on issues an emerging entrepreneur would never think of. For example, an expert in food preparation alerted Janovsky to the necessity of creating a recall plan in the event of a spoiled batch, a potential problem that might never have occurred to her.

Her involvement with the program led Janovsky to attend a regional trade convention, where she met other specialty jam makers. Janovsky said the jam makers enthusiastically networked with each other and exchanged business strategies, which was the perfect reflection of the VVM philosophy.

“We decided there is room for all of us to thrive,” she said.