Administered by the Small Business Administration, the federal agency that provides support to entrepreneurs, Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs) have played a key role in growing many small businesses nationwide. Funded through a combination of state and SBA grants, most are typically based at community colleges and state universities. Offering mostly free services, ranging from developing a business plan to executing a marketing strategy, SBDCs can be a lifesaver for financially strapped entrepreneurs looking to turn their dreams into reality.
For Amber Sims Hinterplattner, co-owner of the four-year-old All Stages Marketing, a digital and social media marketing agency based in Santa Barbara, California, enlisting the services of a local college’s SBDC proved instrumental in building a solid foundation for her company in its infancy. She first became acquainted with the center through the teacher of an adult education entrepreneurial course that she was taking with her husband and business partner at Santa Barbara City College.
“[Our class] was taught by an active SBDC consultant who mentioned the free resource for local entrepreneurs who were serious about getting help with their business concept,” she recalls. “We scheduled a meeting with him and he provided the initial counsel, introducing us to the SBDC resources and other SBDC counselors. [The latter] were incredibly experienced, encouraging and supportive, which is, to me, a critical part of launching a business successfully. Having people who are veterans of business provide sound advice while standing on the sidelines cheering for you is priceless.”
Hinterplattner says the SBDC counselors helped her and her husband build confidence in their ideas and were instrumental in connecting them with businesses that were interested in learning more about their service capabilities. The SBDC also encouraged them to showcase their marketing knowledge with other area businesses through speaking engagements and other networking events.
The experience was so positive for Hinterplattner that she became an SBDC consultant two years after first seeking assistance. “I wanted to give back to my community,” she explains. “My social media and online marketing knowledge are in high demand for small business owners who typically can't afford consultants or an agency like mine.”
To be sure, an SBDC is not the cure for a struggling small business that requires a more intensive overhaul. There are limits to what an SBDC can provide in terms of service and duration. Entrepreneurs who are contemplating using an SBDC as a resource should consider the following tips:
Find counselors who specialize in your sector
Denise Breeson, a 10-year SBDC counselor who teaches small business management at Santa Rosa Jr. College in Santa Rosa, California, says finding a counselor who understands your industry is critical. “They need to match their business type with the expertise of the counselor,” she advises. “Some counselors have direct experience in the field; others do not.”
Hinterplattner says this is key. She also emphasizes that it’s important to focus on a weakness that you need help improving. “If you don't see [or find a counselor with the] expertise you were hoping for, ask the network to help match you with someone who can help in the areas you've outlined,” she counsels.
Although an SBDC can help a burgeoning business with website optimization or developing an effective online presence, it can’t perform miracles. Make sure your expectations are grounded and informed.
Zach Halpern, founder of the Boca Raton, Florida-based Frozen Guru, which makes flour-free waffles for retail distribution, touts the SBDC at Palm Beach State College as a wonderful resource. He credits it for helping him streamline his company’s search results rankings.
Yet he does have a caveat about SBDCs that fellow entrepreneurs should heed. “They are limited to advice and guidance,” says Halpern, who has six employees. “They do not have any discretionary funds to assist companies.”
Breeson echoes Halpern’s disclaimer, adding that entrepreneurs need to understand that “SBDC services are not ongoing, but rather limited to a task such as writing a business plan. They are not open ended.”
Have a clear vision of what you want to do
As great a resource as an SBDC might be, its ability to help a business will be limited if the owner’s goals and ideas are vague. “Even if you don’t have a business plan, an SBDC can help you develop one,” insists Hinterplattner. “But not having a business vision makes it hard for both parties. I know this firsthand as I've been on both sides of the table.”
Do your research beforehand
Try to glean as much information as you can about SBDCs and how they can help your business before you visit your nearest center. You might even be better off getting assistance from SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives), a nonprofit staffed by counselors who work on a volunteer basis, unlike SBDC counselors, who are paid.
Visiting an SBDC can be a turning point in the development of a small business still in its infancy. Not only can the counselors arm the entrepreneur with the tools needed to drive a company forward, they can also pave the way to influential and prosperous associations that can last the lifetime of a business. As with everything else in life, tenacity and an eagerness to convert lessons learned into real world application are necessary elements.
“Don't lose sight of the fact that being in business for yourself is both a reward as well as sacrifice,” says Hinterplattner. “The first several years always demand more to succeed in the long run. Stick with it as there are organizations out there, including the SBDC, that are there to help you along the way.”