By Drew Dixon
The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville.
Profit mastery, balance sheets, short-term debt and dividends are some of the terms being thrown around at a new program designed to help small businesses grow on the First Coast.
ScaleUp North Florida is conducting classes for 37 small business owners, educating them on how to go from the smaller stages of a business to a thriving enterprise that will make more money, hire more employees and have a firmer understanding of the business world.
The program is funded by the U.S. Small Business Administration, which provided a $1.6 million grant to cover the next five years.
Michael Serig is the owner of Earthscapes Design Build LLC in Jacksonville and is among the first in the ScaleUp Classes. A former construction worker, he started his business about three years ago to take stone product refuse from construction sites and produce custom fire pits and leisure and patio furnishings.
Serig said he had no idea how little he knew about running a business until he started attending the free ScaleUp classes.
“I’m blown away,” Serig said during a break from one of the classes at the Beaver Street Enterprise Center in March. “I’ve been able to manage a business, not run a business for a long time.
“Everything that they’re teaching me are things that I need to know that I didn’t have a clue about. I really feel like I’m getting a college education crammed into eight weeks,” though the program lasts a year with classes, additional training and support.
Serig said the biggest moment for him was when an instructor explained the concept of brand value, the customer awareness of the company or product name.
“When you’re a small business, you don’t really want to spend money on marketing. But brand value increases the value of your company. That brand value is important,” Serig said, noting he now has more than a few ideas for marketing and advertising to advance awareness of Earthscapes.
It sounds simple, but Serig said he also was alerted for the first time to the value of sales.
“It seems pretty obvious. But the big part of it is to focus on that. We were worried about procurement. … Sales wasn’t a big priority. We had some sales but not to the point where we could grow,” Serig said.
AFTER THE STARTUP, WHAT’S NEXT?
There were 64 applicants for the classes on employee hiring, financial management, growth management and more taught by trained instructors who either have their own businesses or who are business consultants. There’s no cost to participants, who must have been operating their businesses for at least two years with sales between $150,000 and $750,000.
“They’re not startups, they’ve been in business and they’re making money,” ScaleUp program director Jennifer Marko, said. “You’ve passed the point where if most businesses were going to fail, they would have already closed up and moved on.
“It’s a big leap in a lot of areas including human resources, financial strategy, leadership and strategic planning. All of those are issues that occur for smaller businesses when they’re trying to scale up and become larger business.”
Andrea Hart has owned the BrightStar personal care provider with 30 employees in Jacksonville for about five years. She said she’s had help through the Small Business Development Center at the University of North Florida before, but nowhere near the depth of the ScaleUp program.
“I have had consultants and different things like that. … But this program is a little bit different. It’s almost like on steroids, so to speak,” Hart said with a laugh.
While the instructors are detailing the ins and outs of growing a business, Hart said a big component of the course is being around other small business owners who have made some of the same mistakes in the early going as entrepreneurs.
“It is comforting and because we’re at different levels it gives you something to look forward to because the mind-set of a business owner is completely different than anybody else. We’re like anomalies. Nobody has the understanding of what we have to go through,” Hart said.
Hart said she’s been able to run her business fairly well and has the fundamentals of entrepreneurial management down. But the comparisons of her business to the marketplace, market awareness, and input from other business managers at ScaleUp have been the most valuable assets to growing her company.
“It gives you a reference point where you’re at and where you can go,” Hart said. “When you’re a business owner, you’re in a silo. You only see what’s in front of you. … This actually makes me enthusiastic that there is a pot at the end of the rainbow.”
HELPING TO REBUILD THE LOCAL ECONOMY
Paul Arrington is one of the ScaleUp instructors. He is a consultant with the Small Business Development Center at UNF and teaches a financial management class. He said he teaches approaches to business that the participants simply may not have considered.
For instance, he shows participants how to gauge the way their businesses are trending in the market, and how they compare financially to other entrepreneurs in their industries.
“I think that it’s really generating some ‘aha’ moments for them,” Arrington said. “Now, they know what the concepts are and now they have the tools to really grow.
“The reaction that I got was that it was eye-opening.”
Laying a more solid foundation for established small businesses is essential to developing the entrepreneurial ecosystem for North Florida, said Carlton Robinson, senior director for the entrepreneurial growth division of JAX Chamber.
“In the big picture, it’s extremely important,” Robinson said. “Even though they may have a viable product or service, actually running a sustainable business is a separate skill set.”
Robinson has no involvement in ScaleUp, though he refers some business owners to apply for the program. He said about two-thirds of businesses in the North Florida area have about two to nine employees each. In 2013, there were an estimated 130,000 businesses in Duval, St. Johns, Baker, Nassau, Flagler and Clay counties, he said.
ScaleUp could offer a profound return to the business community in the next few years, Robinson said, considering that the number of businesses in North Florida peaked at about 156,000 in 2010. Many businesses closed during the recession.
The ScaleUp program offers hope.
“As a region, we’re moving beyond the traditional ‘I-need-help-with-my-small-business-plan’ to things that are more meaningful,” Robinson said. “A program like ScaleUp is a big step in that direction.”