When I heard about DailyCandy’s 3rd annual “Start Small, Go Big” competition, I thought I’d investigate to see what I could learn, as it focuses on discovering and helping up-and-coming small businesses grow by pairing them with mentors from some of the biggest names in fashion, home, beauty and food. DailyCandy has been a springboard for some of the newest and best designers, boutiques and restaurants, and “Start Small, Go Big” helps to bring founders and CEOs together with tomorrow’s innovators. Six winners will meet with successful mentors at the DailyCandy Academy and get one-on-one guidance and insights vital to every small business owner. Past winners like Nella Pasta, Cold Spring Apothecary, Quinn Popcorn and Dolly Pearl (all led by women in their late 20s and early 30s) have gone on to sell their clothes in high-end boutiques, launch e-commerce businesses and scale their operations to national distributions.

This year’s mentors include Jonathan Adler, a potter since his teenage years, who got his start after showing his pots to Barneys and now has 18 store locations nationwide, and Rebecca Minkoff, who started selling “I heart NYC” t-shirts off of her bicycle and has catapulted to success following the introduction of her “Morning After Bag,” and now sells full fashion lines. I thought it would be interesting to connect with Rebecca and Jonathan about their experience with mentors and mentoring over the years and here is what I learned

1. You can find mentors in the most unexpected places.

“My greatest mentor was actually my greatest… detractor! When I was in college I went to my pottery professor and asked her if I had what it takes to become a potter [one does wonder what it takes], and she said that I had no talent and I should move to New York to become a lawyer or something. I believed her, and slinked off with my tail between my legs and gave up pottery for a few years. Luckily, I proved to be a terrible employee and got fired from a series of jobs in New York and finally decided to give pottery another try, but this time on my own terms. I wouldn’t seek the approval of my professor, I’d just make what I wanted to make and follow my heart. And that’s what I did. So I suppose that horrid professor was my greatest mentor.” –Jonathan Adler

2. Even mentors can use a little mentoring.

“I don’t feel totally finished being mentored, I think it’s still important to ask, advise and challenge myself; there is always room to grow and learn. With that said, I do really enjoy being able to mentor not only young designers, but also women. I really believe in empowering young girls to do what they love.” –Rebecca Minkoff

“Ah, the mentee becomes the mentor! Let’s just say that I use a kinder and gentler approach than my mentor. I think anybody can do anything with enough work and commitment, and I constantly remind the young’ins of that.” –Jonathan Adler

3. Above all else, stay true to you.

“Be willing to get ‘down and dirty,’ be determined, don’t ever doubt yourself and stay true to who you are and what you believe in.” –Rebecca Minkoff

“Authenticity, authenticity, and authenticity! I attribute my success to the fact that I never meant to have a business, I never did a business plan and I was completely clueless. I was simply passionate about making pottery and that passion, which has expanded into all arenas of design, continues to fuel my business. I think that authentic passion is the most effective marketing tool.” –Jonathan Adler

“Piggybacking on an existing product or service usually won’t get your business noticed in competitive markets. Yours should fill a need and stand out from the competition. I created a line for what I wanted to wear, and what I saw was a void in the market of design and function at an affordable price.” –Rebecca Minkoff

4. Everything you need to know, you’ve probably already heard.

“There isn’t a turn-key way to start a big brand. I never meant to have a big brand; I just had to follow my heart. Probably not what I should be saying, but I find overly ambitious start-ups to be a bit of a bummer. For me, starting a business was something I had to do or I would go insane. Growing my business from a cottage industry to its current state has taken a long, long time and more work than I ever imagined. So I suppose that patience and hard work are the keys, I bet nobody has ever heard that before. When I first started, I rented studio space in a pottery co-op and my fellow potters, though lovely, proved to be a bit of a cautionary tale about how not to grow a business. They made great stuff, but they kept making the same stuff over and over and over again, and I saw that their businesses were completely stagnant. So I resolved to be nimble, analytical and strive for constant re-invention.” –Jonathan Adler

5. Get down to business and use the tools at your disposal.

“Use social media to break down barriers that traditionally separate designers from consumers, host web-centric events, and partner with web communities like Polyvore and The Purse Forum. For example, to mark our five-year anniversary, we hosted a contest/giveaway called Jack A MAC. The online/offline event, orchestrated through Twitter and Foursquare, attracted 500 to 1,000 participants.” –Rebecca Minkoff

After connecting with DailyCandy’s Editor-in-Chief, Ashley Parrish, about how they select the winners of “Start Small, Go Big”, I appreciate the uncommon sense and directional simplicity of the questions entrants have to answer. Whether you plan to start small and go big, you’re a passionate start-up, or a multimillion dollar household brand, the following five questions are applicable and a good reality check:

1. The world needs my business because?

2. My big idea moment was?

3. My greatest challenge so far has been?

4. The most creative business solution I’ve used so far is… and the outcome was?

5. As a small business owner, I’ve had to think outside the box, and a specific example is?