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With a Mentor by Your Side

By Emily Voth Even prior to going into business in 1995, I liked the idea of seeking help from people smarter and more experienced than I. In fact, back then, my job left a lot to be desired. One day at lunch, I was complaining to my yoga teacher, who said: "Why don't you turn one of your hobbies into a business?"

That's trite, I thought. However, I loved my herb garden and I loved skin-care products. So I did a little research at the library, and by the end of 1994, I had quit my day job. By the following spring, I had put together and started selling a small line of natural body-care products under the name Indigo Wild.

Similarly, when it comes to running Indigo Wild, which is based in Kansas City, I am not shy about asking for help. After the yoga teacher, it was my husband who stepped in. While he's an architect with a day job of his own, early on, he made all of the soaps for Indigo Wild and stayed up until midnight helping me prepare for trade shows. He's still actively involved with the soap-making, and just recently, he secured a mixer for bath salts and built shelving.

BIG COMPANY, BIG PROBLEMS. Being open to accepting help fits my personality. I know I don't have all the answers. So I hire good people and respect their expertise. Indeed, at Indigo Wild, my six full-time employees are all vice-presidents, and I am the "vice-president of the vice-presidents." In the same vein, as my company has expanded, I've continued to be receptive to support from others.

A growing company means bigger problems. Revenue at Indigo Wild soared 60 percent, to $1.2 million, in 2001 from $750,000 the previous year -- a geometric increase from the $10,000 during my first year. In the early days, if I decided to spend for a flyer, for example, and it didn't work out, so what? I could dip into my savings to cover the costs. Now, if I spend to increase inventory and it doesn't work out, I might not be able to make payroll.

Without an MBA degree to guide me, I've turned increasingly to outside advisers -- and one in particular, Rick Krska, whom I now consider my personal mentor. I met Rick two years ago, after joining the Kansas City-based Helzberg Entrepreneurial Mentoring Program, which pairs company founders seeking help with more experienced entrepreneurs. (The organization was founded by Barnett Helzberg, Jr., former owner and president of Helzberg Diamonds.) Rick owns and operates Lasar Cycle, which remanufactures used cartridges for lasers printers and facsimile machines.

A WARMING FRIENDSHIP. As with many mentoring relationships, ours began on a formal note. We would say things like, "When can we get together to talk." It also involved Rick suggesting and probing in an effort to enable me to make good decisions. When I was frustrated about whether or not to buy our manufacturing building, for example, Rick said, "Think about the return you'd get if you put the money into Indigo Wild instead". That convinced me not to buy the facility.

Over our months together, however, it was clear that our personalities were meshing. So the formality gave way and Rick's advice became more direct, such as, "You can do it your way, but here's what I would do." Even better, he began serving up the type of exchanges that are woefully lacking in the daily lives of most entrepreneurs: the pat on the back, the kick in the behind -- and the steady hand during times of crisis.

Once, when our soap-cutting machine broke, Rick had the engineer on his staff come over and fix it. He knew we didn't employ an engineer. When our company was cited for excellence by a leading trade journal, it was nice to get a call from Rick giving me a verbal thumbs up.

The encouragement I get from Rick helps keep me on course. In a recent voice mail, he nudged me to attend to a task about which I had been procrastinating. "Did you hire that operations manager yet? Did you?" In an e-mail at the end of the month, he was there, holding me accountable: "What were your sales? They'd better be up 30 percent."

THE RIGHT FIT. So our mentoring relationship has gelled, which is interesting, because at the beginning, I didn't know exactly what I wanted from it. Two years ago, when I met Rick, I only knew that the issues for Indigo Wild were becoming more complex, taxing my ability to make the best decisions.

Back then, however, I did sense there was a fit between Rick and me. While our companies would appear to have little in common -- his is a laser-cartridge manufacturer, mine a maker of soaps and candles -- we do, in fact, both take individual components, create products from those parts, and sell the products. In short, our procedures are similar -- and Rick understood that.

Rick also took my business seriously, which hasn't always been the case with others. What, after all, could be more frou-frou than a maker of soaps and candles? Add a female founder and the perception takes hold of an entrepreneurial wannabe stirring soap over a stove with children underfoot. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indigo Wild is all about six full-time employees, 15 part-timers, and sales soaring into the seven digits. And Rick understood that, too.

SUMMING UP. Whenever I think about what's in it for Rick to help me, I need to acknowledge that he isn't getting paid and isn't an investor in Indigo Wild. Thus, I conclude that he is simply one of those people with a heart of gold -- and one of those entrepreneurs who truly enjoys helping others launch and expand their businesses.

So I consider myself lucky: lucky to have a mentor by my side, lucky that my mentor is Rick, and lucky, too, perhaps, that I was shrewd enough to seek out someone like Rick, and to be open to the idea of being mentored. Not all entrepreneurs are so willing, of course. To them I would say, take this one piece of advice, the piece about the need to have a mentor by your side: try it, you'll like it.

Voth, 37, founded Indigo Wild, a Kansas City-based maker of natural soaps and body products, in 1995. In its first year, her outfit achieved revenues of $10,000. In 2001, it broke through the seven-figure barrier with sales of $1.2 million. Entrepreneur's Byline comes to BusinessWeek Online readers courtesy of, a resource for entrepreneurs that is sponsored by the nonprofit Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

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