Leg up for entrepreneurs: Free and low-cost training

By Suzanne Fulton
You have this great idea for a business — one that probably was inspired by your experience with an existing business, product or service. You have the vision and passion — very important ingredients for fostering success — but you don’t know QuickBooks from quickstep — or whatever steps are necessary to make your vision a reality. How do you go about empowering yourself — learning what you need to know in order to start and grow your business?

Sheila and Chris Brumlow, owners of the The Ohanakey Company

Help is but a few steps away using your fingers — to tap your computer keys, phone or to steer your vehicle down the road to low- and no-cost seminars and courses and mentoring offered through the Small Business Administration.

Small Business Development Center Network

Under the umbrella of the SBA is a nation-wide network of 900 small business development centers, 110 women’s business centers, and 12,000 participants in Senior Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) providing prospective and new business owners with a variety of advice and other resources for launching and building their enterprise. In addition, stated SBA administrator Karen Mills, “more than 2.5 million entrepreneurs have accessed free online training since 2009 through our expanded online resources.”

Partnering with local chambers of commerce as well as the regional arm of the SBA, the Small Business Network of the NC Community College System sponsors 58 small business centers throughout North Carolina. In North Mecklenburg, Gaston, Rowan, Cabarrus and Iredell counties, free and low-cost business classes and one-on-one mentoring services abound through this network.

Two years ago, when Gwynn Lindler of Cornelius was in the process of planning to launch her personal fitness training business, she found her way to Suzanne Wallace, program director of Mitchell Community College’s Small Business Center. Wallace mentored Lindler in Mooresville. (Mitchell Community College’s SBC offers mentoring and classes in downtown Mooresville as well as at its main campus in Statesville.)

LINDLER

“At first, we met every few weeks,” said Lindler. “Suzanne has been a business owner herself. She heard my vision for mobile personal training for women and asked questions about elements of the plan. My answers — or lack of answers — highlighted strengths or weaknesses in the plan. Our appointments usually ended with a list of action items to work on before the next meeting. She also recommended specific free or lost-cost classes at Mitchell — often for just one evening — that provided guidance for determining the business entity, accounting structure, marketing basics, etc.”

Lindler added, “Since the launch of LKN Fit Life in spring of 2012, we meet less often but still touch base periodically. Suzanne gave me the confidence to know I had a good idea, helped me develop the plan, and the encouragement to carry through.”

Senior Corps of Retired Executives

Prior to launching The Ohanakey Co. seven years ago, Chris and Shelia Brumlow sat down with a SCORE executive. Such volunteers have guided countless would-be entrepreneurs through the early steps of starting their venture.

“That SCORE executive hailed from the apparel manufacturing world, which was a perfect fit for us and the type of business we planned to launch. He shared valuable insights and tips to help ensure the success of our line of beach and mountain-inspired apparel and accessories and custom promotional and spirit wear items,” said Shelia Brumlow.

At that time, the Brumlows had to travel from Cornelius to Charlotte to visit with their SCORE advisor. Now a resident of the outlying areas can meet with a SCORE volunteer much closer to home.

Mike O’Hara, of Davidson, is the SCORE volunteer the Lake Norman Chamber contacts when they receive a request for such counsel. O’Hara hails from the insurance field at the corporate level, but with about 16 compatriots in the Lake Norman area, he maintains that he can connect a client to a SCORE volunteer who brings a client a work background that would be a better fit. The one-on-one meetings can be held in a quiet corner of a coffee shop or other location that has wi-fi, he says, and the discussion could cover whatever is the most pressing need — review of a draft business plan, setting up of the books, etc.

“One of the most important takeaways for the prospective owner is a much better idea of what to expect before committing money to the enterprise,” emphasized O’Hara.

Financial Support

Banks and other funders will turn you away until you can present them with a well-developed plan for your venture. The reason? Poor planning is the number one reason for failures of small businesses, wrote Sandra Bienkowski, former editor of SUCCESS magazine.

The Small Business Administration supports four primary types of lending programs, the distinguishing features for which, states the SBA, “are the total dollar amounts that can be borrowed, the type of lenders who can provide these loans, the uses for the loan proceeds, and the terms placed on the borrower.”

As for approaching venture capitalists for funding while in the “new” phase, heed this advice from small business adviser Marla Tabaka. “Getting your company off the ground, successful, and profitable makes you much more attractive to financiers.” Investors “want to see a repeatable, scalable customer-acquisition machine already up and running,” Tabaka wrote in Inc. magazine.

The comprehensive guide published by the North Carolina Small Business and Technology Development Center (SBTDC), “Capital Opportunities for Small Businesses,” is another good resource. Go online to www.sbtdc.org  or call 919.715.7272.

The SBTDC specializes in helping businesses gain access to funding as well as to government contracts.

Where are Small Business Centers in our area?

Central Piedmont Community College provides no-cost workshops, comprehensive training, networking events and confidential business advice at several locations in the Charlotte area, including Huntersville.

According to CPCC Executive Director for Small Business Renee Hode, 2,500 startup entrepreneurs and small business owners participated in the 160 free and fee-based offerings by CPCC in Fiscal Year 2012-13. One-on-one counseling was delivered to 430 distinct individuals.

“We stay in tune with new trends, hold focus groups and survey our participants to know which classes to offer, ”she said, adding, “We are seeing a strong interest in our services in the whole Charlotte area.”

CPCC’s instructors have been in the trenches. “They bring us their experience as owners and operators of their own business. To teach a specialty course, like marketing, an instructor must bring to the lectern at least three years’ experience in that functional area.”

Hode is also regional director, Small Business Center Network.

Rowan-Cabarrus Community College is part of the network. Its SBC, like the others, offers an array of seminars, short courses and a place to stop by and borrow a book, CD or other type of resource that addresses management, sales, marketing, customer service, NC rules and more. At RCCC campuses in Concord, Kannapolis and Salisbury, qualified instructors cover topics like “Figuring Your Startup Costs,” “The Importance of a Well-Drafted Contract,” or “Steps to Start a Nonprofit.”

To obtain complete information, visit www.rccc.edu/sbc or send an email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . To check for the advisor’s hours call 704-216-3533

Other SBCs in our area

• Gaston College SBC: For information, contact Cynthia Cash (704) 922-6447 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . For a listing of Gaston College’s SBC offerings, which are offered in Lincoln and Gaston counties, go to online to: startabiz.gaston.edu/public/programs.asp

• Mitchell Community College SBC: Suzanne Wallace (704) 878-3227 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Web site is www.mitchellcc.edu/continuing-ed/small-bus-center.cfm. From there, one can click on the link to classes and free seminars.

OTHER Links

www.thrivenc.com/smallbusiness/start-a-new-business

www.sbtdc.org/resources/online-training/Charlotte.score.org

www.ncsbc.net (provides links to other relevant agencies, like those listed below)

www.secretary.state.nc.us/corporations/

www.irs.gov/business

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