The Free Resource Your Business Is Overlooking

By Gerri Detweiler
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Free ResourceAmy Cantin and Larinda Rainwater had been travel agents for over 20 years. They loved helping their clients and were successful, but were finding themselves increasingly dissatisfied with their jobs at the travel agency where they were both employed. They knew the logical next step would be to open their own travel agency, but that prospect was intimidating.

“We knew how to sell travel but we didn’t know how to run a business,” says Cantin, echoing a common dilemma many would-be entrepreneurs face. “It was scary,” Rainwater adds.

Fortunately, a friend referred them to the Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center, where, for nearly a year, they worked with business consultant Robert Bahn to develop a plan for their business and prepare to go out on their own. They also hired an attorney who, among other things, made sure they didn’t take any client information with them, which could open them to legal action by their former employer.

Their planning paid off: starting with their grand opening (which Bahn attended), Jonesboro Travel Cruise and Tour was a success. “We turned our open sign on and from there it exploded,” says Cantin. “We have been so grateful,” says Rainwater, referring to both the reception from their community and the help they received from Bahn. Describing the services they received from their SBTDC, Rainwater says, “We can’t believe it’s free!” 

Cantin and Rainwater are just two of hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs nationwide who received help from their Small Business Development Center (SBDC) or Small Business and Technology Development Center (SBTDC) last year. “The easiest way to explain an SBDC’s role in assisting a small business is, it acts as their company’s “advisory board,” says Charles “Tee” Rowe, president and CEO of America’s SBDC. “They are there for the life of the business and able to provide a guidance and training on a wide range of areas.”

Yet many small business owners remain unaware of the many ways they can benefit from the services these agencies offer. Here are four key things you should know about how an SBDC can help you.

1. They Offer More Services Than You May Realize

Training and consulting are the two core services offered by these organizations. This may come in the form of one-on-one consultations, as well as classes offered in person and online. The topics they cover, though, can be broad and include:

Business Planning: If, like Cantin and Rainwater, you have a business idea but aren’t sure how to move forward, your SBDC consultant is an ideal partner. He or she can help you create a business plan, and objectively help you evaluate your idea and avoid costly mistakes like co-mingling your personal and business finances. If you already have a business plan, consider running it by an advisor for a second opinion.

Business Growth Strategy: Many businesses turn to their SBDC when they want to expand their business by landing government contracts or getting involved in importing or exporting.

Financing Expertise: The process of applying for financing can feel overwhelming. You’ll want to check your business and personal credit scores, as well as gather documents you’ll need to apply. Your SBDC can help you evaluate your options for financing. “We are not a lending institution,” says Rogers, “but we do assist with helping (entrepreneurs) get knowledgeable about their finances, creating a business plan and preparing to apply.” Many offer classes in basic bookkeeping and financing fundamentals. (Before you start the search for financing, make sure you know where your business credit scores stand. Good business credit scores can open the door to many more low-cost financing options. You can check your personal and business credit scores for free at Nav.)

Leadership Training: When a business starts to grow, the founder may find himself or herself with no choice but to start delegating to other employees. And that can be challenging for someone who has been used to doing it all. The SBDC at the University of Texas San Antonio offers leadership training, via a half day program called Business Building Excellence that lasts seven weeks. “It’s been very successful,” says Richard Sifuentes, Assistant Director for the South-West Texas Border SBDC Network.

Market Research: Ian Rogers, training manager at the Michigan Small Business Development Center says market research is a popular service. These reports may include industry trends, customer demographics, competitive analysis and more.

Technology Development: If you have technology you hope to commercialize, talk with your SBDC, which can often help with technology business planning, market research and alternative financing, among other services. “For technology businesses, we like to say that (our) assistance encompasses from Lab to Launch,” says Laura Miller, center director at the Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center. “For a business wanting to commercialize a product, this may also include assessing the industry and potential competitors, pricing, marketing, and identifying funding sources.”

Website Development and Marketing: Your SBDC can help with website fundamentals, including search engine optimization and/or social media marketing.

2. It Really (Truly) Is Free or Low-Cost

Most of the services provided by an SBDC or SBTDC, such as consulting and advising, will be free. There may be a small charge for classes or certain programs. SBDCs are funded in part by the federal government through the Small Business Administration, state or local economic development agencies and with support from local partners.

But just because it’s free doesn’t mean the quality isn’t high. SBDC advisors and consultants come from a variety of backgrounds that may include former business owners, CEOs, bankers, and directors of nonprofits, says Sifuentes. In some parts of the country they may be business professionals who work part-time for the SBDC while running their own business, and in others they may work full-time for their center. Either way, they are dedicated to helping entrepreneurs succeed.

3. If You Don’t Work With One, You May Regret It

“I wish I’d found you sooner,” is one of the most common comments Sifuentes says his staff hears. He says it’s not uncommon for graduates of the University of Texas – San Antonio, where his center is located to find themselves coming back to campus for services they didn’t learn about while they were still in school.  “We are the best kept secret even though we have been around for more than 20 years,” he notes. As not-for-profit organizations, they don’t do a lot of advertising and rely heavily on community partners to get the word out about their services.

4. Results Speak for Themselves

Need more of a nudge? Take a look at these results:

• SBDC clients create an average of one new business every thirty minutes.

• The average SBDC client experiences 15.5 percent annual job growth, versus an average 1.9 percent for small businesses nationwide.

• The average SBDC client experiences 13.6 percent annual sales growth, which is four times the national average.

With more than 1,000 centers nationwide, there is probably one in your backyard, says Rowe. “We want to be part of your team for the long-term,” says Rogers.