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The SBA’s National Small Business Week innovation panel long on mentoring

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This week, May 12 – 16, is National Small Business Week, which comes to life through the US Small Business Administration. There were events in various cities in the US, and Thursday the SBA celebrated Boston as an innovation hub.

The day’s conference, held at the NERD Center in Cambridge, offered workshops as well as many speakers both well-known and others that entrepreneurs need to know.

The pre-lunch panel was intended to focus on high-tech and innovation, but after a quick poll of the business stages of audience members, instead the topic soon shifted from how companies can innovate to what turned out to be an even more valuable subject – how to succeed.

It was no secret; all five panelists as well as the moderator enthusiastically agreed that monoring was the key.

“You’ve got to be okay with asking for help,” said moderator Allicon Saltzer, Senior business Development manager at Microsoft.

Finding advisors and mentors is easy, they agreed. Ask at your college if their alumni association has a mentoring program, ask contacts on LinkedIn, or find mentoring groups are all possibilities.

Massachusetts has a thriving startup community and every budding entrepreneur has many assets they can utilize to aid in their success.

“Getting good mentors was a game-changer for us,” said Carl Dietrich, CEO/CTO and cofounder of Terrafugia, a well-funded startup that is turning the science fiction of flying cars into reality. “It made a big difference for us, getting big name advisors.”

Dietrich was quick to say make sure they have a range of backgrounds. That is an important point because company owners need knowledge they don’t have to fill business gaps.

Donna Levin, Co-founder of said, “The best mentors think about your company even when they aren’t there with you and we have lots of mentors to call.”

As a startup grows, there will be need to assemble a board of directors. Some will be investors, however, a trusted advisor who knows a given company holds a lot of value as well.

“There’s a world of difference between an advisor and a board member,” Akhil Nigam, Founder and President of MassChallenge said. “It’s important to know where your company’s at and what you need.”

Mentors often advise for free, where board members often hold equity, are paid, or realize some form of financial gain.

The panel wrapped with a question by Saltzer, “What is your best business advice?”

In the spirit of The Lean Startup, Branden English Founder of RailPod said, “Fail fast and fail often.”

“Don’t wait for perfection,” Levin said. “If you wait too long trying to make everything perfect, you’ll have to catch up with your competition.”

“Nothing will happen until you take action,” Nigam added.

“The SBA is the business backbone,” said panelist Pravnia Raghavan, Deputy Assiciate Administrator if the SBA Office of Investments and Innovation. The SBA has a multi-billion dollar budget for the soul purpose of making small businesses succeed.

Finally, Dietrich succinctly concluded with his parting advice, “Will your company into existence. Above all, be passionate.”