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Who Is Your Mentor? My Tribute to Mine: Ed Robson

Every entrepreneur needs a mentor. In 1980, when I opened my first business, I knew who I wanted for mine. 1980 was not an auspicious time for the economy, nor was it common for women to be entrepreneurs.And I literally didn't know what I was doing. I only knew I was finished being a college professor; I was bored to death and itching to do something new, and something helpful. I wanted to build businesses and help other people build businesses.

So I called the man I most wanted as a guide when I started down my path: Edward J. Robson.

Ed RobsonI knew Ed as a tennis player and friend of my husband's — a hard-driving real estate developer with plenty of guts both on and off the tennis court. Already successful, he was my business idol when I was a young woman starting out. So I summoned my courage and called him. I have told this story many times since, because this was when I learned the value of having (and later being) a mentor.

I will never forget this meeting, which determined so many aspects of my future. We met at a "fern bar," a now defunct genre of happy hour haunts with lots of greenery and deep fried appetizers. "What do I need to know?" I asked him, reaching for the check for our glasses of chablis. I think he laughed at me.

"Don't get an office; work out of your car," he told me, pre-dating the current mantra of the lean startup by about thirty years. "No one will come to your office; you will go to theirs. And get a Mercedes, so you look successful."

Get a car phone, he added.

That was shocking advice, and seemed so difficult to follow. At that time, car phones were so new that only doctors could get on the cellular networks, and I had to get on a waiting list and pay $3500 for my first car phone. I only got it because the late Bill Graham, another Phoenix entrepreneur, formed a syndicate of enough people who wanted these scarce phones to loft us to the top of the waiting list!

And the Mercedes? What starving startup entrepreneur can afford $30,000 for a Mercedes? But more research and networking revealed that you could import one from Germany for about half price on the gray market, which is what I did.

Ed's advice was good. Take on only the visible overhead, and not what your customers don't see. Put yourself in a position to be available to customers when and where they need you. Put the money into marketing (that's what the Mercedes was) and not into facilities. Stay close to your customers. The words were different, but the concepts were the same ones that apply today.

Ed later went on to become spectacularly successful, and hired my marketing company to help him. First he formed me, then he outsourced to me! I only see it in retrospect.

Ed turns 80 on Sept. 21. Now an icon in the building business, he gets up and goes to work every day, running the business he never sold and never took public so he could leave it to his family. We are still friends, and I still ask for his advice, although I have given as much advice now as I have taken.

Every once in a while, I reach out to thank him. Without him, I never would have had the courage to start a business, the courage to become a real estate investor, and then the courage to be an angel. If you are just starting out, I encourage you to call the person you want as a mentor, offer her that glass of wine (now it's red) and LISTEN.