When MicroMentor launched in 2008, it informally billed itself as “a dating site for small business owners.”
Six years later, the Mercy Corps startup has made more than 6,000 mentoring matches, and is shifting its focus to providing its proven mentoring platform to large organizations, like the state of New York.
In its first four years, MicroMentor built an online platform to attract small business owners and experienced mentors, and facilitate lasting relationships between them to help those businesses survive and grow.
The need was clear. Research and survey data showed that a new small business’ chance of surviving its first two years jumped from 69 to 82 percent when the owner had guidance from an experienced mentor in their field. Mentored businesses also had significantly increased revenue and were more likely to hire someone. Despite these advantages, many small businesses weren’t connecting with a valuable source of support.
MicroMentor’s web-based platform makes the process of finding and sustaining a mentoring relationship much easier. Small business owners can create an online profile that describes their specific needs, and browse similar profiles of mentors interested in giving back to their field. An aspiring restaurateur struggling with their books, for example, could seek a mentor with special expertise in restaurant financial management.
But in 2012, the MicroMentor team realized their outreach model wasn’t creating the level of growth they wanted. It also wasn’t providing the revenue they needed to become financially independent of grants and donor support--unstable funding sources that tied up employee resources and further inhibited growth.
“We were working with partner organizations before with some success,“ said MicroMentor Director Samantha Albery. “But that scale always seemed to elude us.”
To address these challenges, the team brainstormed and came up with a new model to more effectively leverage partnerships. Instead of working to drive individual mentors and mentees to a centralized site, MicroMentor has become a flexible online platform that other organizations can license to create their own mentoring networks.
The flagship for this new model is the state of New York’s Business Mentor NY network. Launched in May, the new web portal has customized branding and features that fit the state’s needs, all powered by MicroMentor technology behind the scenes. The state hopes to match 500 small business owners with a mentor in its first year.
In this new model, these partners will play a much greater role in recruiting and engaging users based on their specific needs, while MicroMentor staff will focus on providing constant support and adjustments to the technology.
“We’ve really broadened our ability to work with different partners,” Albery said. “We’ve developed the ability to serve partner organizations that can bring many more leads our way, in the hundreds at a time.”
Government agencies and other organizations with large, established user networks are the principal targets for new partnerships, according to Loren Guerriero, MicroMentor’s product development officer. But the new model will also provide multiple levels of service. Smaller mentoring organizations that aren’t ready for their own portal can just create their own pages on the MicroMentor site, and use their own administrators to help manage the mentor-mentee relationships within their group.
“We’ve found a lot of organizations running their mentoring programs on Excel spreadsheets,” Guerriero said. “It’s a lot of work, and we offer a proven platform that’s been working for years and is constantly being improved.”
The profits from licensing fees for this initial venture into partner networks are likely to be slim, but has already generated interest from several other large potential clients. French and Spanish versions of MicroMentor are also on the horizon, and nearly half of MicroMentor’s budget is now generated from licensing revenue, up from just seven percent only a year ago.
While Albery is excited for MicroMentor’s new direction, she hasn’t lost sight of what attracted her to the idea of building a mentoring platform in the first place.
“It’s the individual stories that are really compelling: the small business owner who made a key decision based on a mentor’s advice, and that kept them in business, or allowed them to hire someone,” she said. “Ultimately, it’s all about creating good jobs and helping people thrive.”