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Where to Find Friendly Feedback

Q: I’m working on a new business idea and find it’s easy for naysayers to gang up on it and me. Do you have any recommendations for good forums or communities where ideas and stories can be shared? The groups I’ve tried are not informative, and online forums are filled with "get-rich-quick" titles and redundant questions and answers.

-- G.M., Sarasota, Fla.

A: Why are people lining up against your idea? Don’t overlook the fact that it may actually be problematic. Getting a red light early on from other business owners is sometimes the best thing to happen to a bad idea. Another reason for the negativity may be that your idea is too complex -- or, conversely, too underdeveloped -- to understand.

"Every consultant in the business is barraged with partially thought-out ideas," says Phil Borden, a longtime entrepreneurial consultant based in Long Beach, Calif. "Time is money to them, so they tend to be dismissive unless the idea is not only well thought-out but well-researched for market and financial feasibility, plus competitive advantage."

Another possibility: Good business ideas often include secrets that require legal protection (see the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office site for more information). Many business professionals do not want to discuss unprotected ideas because hearing them could expose them to future liability.

NO COMPETITORS. As you seek feedback, keep those caveats in mind. You may want to generate a nondisclosure agreement that you can get signed before you reveal proprietary details. (An online template can be ordered from the Nolo site for under $10.)

On your original question: Myriad entrepreneur organizations sponsor roundtable discussions, workshops, forums, and regular support groups, as well as provide one-on-one counseling. Touch base with your local SCORE office and your local Small Business Development Center. Many other groups exist, including the Latin Business Assn., the National Association of Women Business Owners, the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs & Executives, the Young Presidents' Organization, the Women Presidents' Organization, and TEC International.

Most of the above organizations specialize in setting up peer-to-peer support groups. "Typically, the organization that facilitates the group sets up groups of small-business owners that are noncompeting, so that no one... will fear giving away trade secrets or competitive advantage," says Paul O’Reilly of O’Reilly & Associates, a small-business consultancy. "The group meets as often as they choose, usually monthly. At each meeting, each member is allowed to bring one business challenge or idea to the group for feedback." The reason such groups are helpful, he says, is that each member offers a different kind of expertise and, theoretically at least, can share unique insights on your problems.

CAPITAL IDEAS. Of course, reality does not always jibe with theory. You may have found entrepreneurial forums that amount to little more than shared ignorance and stray into jealousy, avarice, or even scam territory, especially the online forums. If so, look for an honest initial evaluation of your business idea not from your peers, Borden suggests, but from people with experience who have something to gain from a successful relationship with you -- namely, potential investors and/or consultants.

"The same investors and consultants who will nix a business idea they think is... vague will leap on a good one," he notes. "After all, investing in growing businesses is how they make their money." Look for local investors who make very small investments in early-stage companies. You can find them by searching online on terms such as "angel capital" or "private investment."

Borden recommends the Angel Capital Assn.. "The ACA lists a large number of legitimate organized investors and also tries to standardize procedures for their work," he says. Another site he frequents is the National Association of Seed & Venture Funds, an organizing site for state-sponsored private investors.

PEER OR MENTOR? A third possibility is to look for independent investors, investment bankers, and consultants who seek promising business plans for their investor clients. "You can look for them through accountants, lawyers, large consulting companies, or on the Internet," Borden notes. But he warns that not all those offering advice are legally registered broker-dealers, and taking their advice can sometimes get a business startup into hot water. Look up the state and Securities & Exchange Commission rules governing such advisors at the Active Capital site, a compliance and educational resource that should also give you some insight as to what investors look for in a business.

Perhaps what you need is neither a peer group nor a consultant, but a mentor. That’s exactly what Gabriel Goncalves needed -- and got -- when he started his first business in the early 1990s. "My mentor had a financial background and came from a large corporation," Goncalves says. "He helped with practical things, like managing receivables and being proactive about collecting money due us. He also helped me think about where I was going to take the business, how to make it highly scalable, how to invest in formalized business processes, and what kind of exit strategy I was looking for. Knowing where you’re coming from and what your blind spots are is where a mentor can really help."

Goncalves was assigned a mentor through the Young Entrepreneurs’ Organization, which now calls itself the Entrepreneurs’ Organization.

SPARKING CREATIVITY. Once you get your company off the ground, you might consider creating your own advisory board to provide ongoing feedback, insight, oversight, and guidance, O’Reilly suggests. "Small businesses usually lack this kind of support and... often feel isolated and unsure of whom they can ask for advice and feedback," he says. "Most of us know people with various work experiences and interests who might be willing to formally or informally offer advice on a regular basis... especially if you treat them to a casual dinner or breakfast to get things started."

Do meet as a group, which encourages the kind of brainstorming that generates more creative ideas and input than does meeting one-on-one, he says.

In your case, a little help from your friends might be just what you need to keep you honest and get your business idea rolling.

Have a question about your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an e-mail at Smart Answers, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 45th Floor, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, N.Y. 10020. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won’t be able to respond to all questions personally.

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