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Mentors-Mentees: Learning from the advice of experienced business people

Chris Magnuson looks over inventory at Unity Stamp of New London, which he owns and operates with his wife, Angela. The business owners say they’ve benefited from a business mentorship program. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange 1 / 4
Chris and Angela Magnuson operate Unity Stamp of New London. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange2 / 4
Angela Magnuson looks over inventory at Unity Stamp of New London, which she owns and operates with her husband, Chris. The business owners say they’ve benefited from a business mentorship program. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange3 / 4
Angela and Chris Magnuson, who operate Unity Stamp of New London, say they sought the advice of experienced business people and worked with a business mentor from SCORE to help their business grow. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange4 / 4

Chris and Angela Magnuson are young, creative and ambitious business owners with a popular product to sell and the guts to jump into an aggressive online marketing campaign.

But the owners of Unity Stamp of New London recognized early on that they had some gaps in their business knowledge.

Instead of ignoring the nagging questions on their profit-and-loss statements, the Magnusons sought out the advice of successful people who’d been in the business world for years.

“We asked a lot of questions,” said Angela Magnuson. “We seek to learn and find answers.”

“We welcomed all ideas,” said Chris. “We wanted another set of eyes.”

Five years ago the Magnusons launched Unity Stamp, which makes and markets rubber stamp kits and accessories for crafters.

The couple has been working with volunteers at the west central Minnesota branch of the Service Corp of Retired Executives, known as SCORE, that provides free business advice and mentoring.

“He’s been nothing but valuable to us,” said Angela of Don McGrath, a retired business executive who’s been volunteering with SCORE since 1997.

McGrath, who had a long career, including 23 years as president of the former Tyler Inc. of Benson, offered insight into “things I never would’ve thought of,” said Angela. “Little bits of advice that make a difference.”

During the quarterly visits McGrath, among other things, reviews the company’s financial data.

He’s given tips on how to “pay attention to where our profits are coming from and where we’re losing them,” said Angela.

He’s also suggested redoing their business plan every year, identifying business goals and taking time to get input from their employees, said Chris.

Based on McGrath’s direction the company has reviewed its shipping costs and learned to ask for discounts from companies where they purchase raw materials.

Because Unity Stamp produces original creative products, they were warned to protect their trademark and intellectual property.

During a SCORE tour of their business, panel members advised them not to “get too big too fast” and to “focus on what we’re at good,” said Angela.

At that time the young company was “doing it all,” including wholesale and retail marketing. The Magnusons took the group’s advice and changed their focus to direct internet retail sales of their branded products.

The result?

“They were right,” said Angela. “SCORE has taught me how to work smarter, not harder.”

She said the volunteer organization is a “wealth of information sitting at your fingertips” and that businesses are foolish not to take advantage of the free services. “They aren’t there to rip you apart, they’re there to help you,” she said.

The couple has also picked the brains of local business people who have been more than happy to share their tips for running a business.

“You can’t think you just know it all,” said Chris, who admits he isn’t shy about picking up the phone and calling influential business people that he admires and picking their brain on how they run their business.

No one has turned him away.

Sometimes it’s just a 15-minute conversation over a cup of coffee, but the advice has always been sound.

“Ninety percent of our ideas came from other people’s advice,” said Chris, adding that entrepreneurs kicking off a business would be surprised how many successful business people are “waiting to be asked” to share their knowledge.

McGrath agrees.

That’s one reason why he got involved with SCORE as a volunteer.

“I wanted to keep my hand in it,” said McGrath, who has contact with about 20 potential business owners each year.

After he asks them to submit a business plan most don’t follow through and never launch their enterprise.

That’s not always a bad thing, said McGrath, who is relieved when people don’t lose a nest egg on an ill-fated business venture.

But he also works with existing businesses, like Unity Stamp, to provide guidance for their continued growth.

“We don’t coach them. We coach their business,” he said. “We help people get going and point them in the right direction.”

Because of quickly changing internet technology —  which McGrath and the Magnusons agree make it easier to start a business now than in the past — McGrath said there will come a time when his advice may not be as pertinent in the future as it is now.

McGrath said he and Bob Bonawitz, another retired local businessman with a long and successful business history, provide the bulk of the volunteer service with the west central branch of SCORE.

He said it’s time for some new business people to get involved with SCORE and share their expertise with a new generation of entrepreneurs.

Chris and Angela Magnuson said they hope that someday they can take what they’ve learned from others and from their own experience and be mentors to others.

“I hope I have the opportunity to give advice,” said Angela. “I’d be honored because it means we’re successful,” said Angela.

But in the meantime, she said, “We’re a young business. We’re still learning.”

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750