By Luis F. Carrasco The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson.
Anyone looking to start a business or take their existing company to the next level may benefit from the Small Business Development Center, an often overlooked, no-cost resource for entrepreneurs.
Every state has several centers, which are partially funded by the U.S. Small Business Administration, offering a variety of services including one-on-one counseling and free or low-cost training programs.
The goal, said Ellen Kirton, director of the Pima and Santa Cruz SBDC, is to make small businesses sustainable, create jobs and spur investment in the community.
Last year, the local SBDC helped launch 33 new businesses, officials said. Through its programs and services, the center's impact included 155 new jobs created, 93 positions retained, more than $7 million in new capital and $12.3 million in revenue growth.
The center's staff often includes former business owners, bankers and accountants, who understand what it takes to be successful in business.
"We get to be the objective person that sits on the other side of the table, who's been there, knows it, can listen and ask the right questions -- that's what we do," Kirton said.
Many people start a business without knowing a lot about, well, business, said Mary Darling, CEO of Darling Geomatics, who founded the company along with her husband.
"You can't know everything. We come in as specialists, we know our subject matter extremely well, but people like us, we needed help with the financial aspects," she said.
"It's really important for business owners to learn how a business operates and all the financial parameters that they need to look at."
Although they had been successfully running their company since 1997, the classes the management team has taken over the last three years through the SBDC have been invaluable, Darling said.
"We're profitable, we're running our company more from a business perspective, looking at scalability, looking at ways to provide more jobs for people in Tucson. A lot of that had to do with what we learned," she said.
Working with clients Anyone contacting the SBDC can expect personalized help, officials said.
"We don't provide our services in a one-size-fits-all manner. We invest the time upfront to have conversations with our clients, find out what their priorities are," said Janice Washington, state director for the Arizona SBDC network.
What they ask in return from their clients is that they be engaged, officials said. They are there to help, not to do the work for their clients. They are also there to tell the truth.
"We can have easy conversations where it's a great opportunity and we can help them forge forward, but if it's not a good idea and it's not going to be, we tell them that," Kirton said.
If a potential entrepreneur has an idea but still hasn't done enough research, she will help guide them to further develop it.
For existing businesses, Kirton can go over balance sheets and profit and loss statements to determine if a company is healthy, but she won't immediately discuss her findings.
Instead, owners are asked to take a look at certain details and come to their own conclusions, she said.
"It's a big aha moment for them. I could tell them the answer but I find with entrepreneurs that they have to come to the answers themselves and then they'll adopt whatever change needs to be made," Kirton said.
Officials note that all exchanges are confidential and none of their information is ever shared with others.
The SBDC will sometimes refer clients to outside services, such as marketers or Web developers. In those cases, clients are given at least three names as recommendations so they may make their own choice.
The center also has a statewide grant for the Procurement Technical Assistance Center program, which helps businesses work with the government.
"If somebody comes in on the SBDC side and we see they have a product or service appropriate for government procurement opportunities, then we'll have them work with the PTAC staff to get certified and go after contracts," Washington said.
Getting the word out Ray Montoya, president of Engineering and Environmental Consultants, found the local SBDC while he was helping a friend with his company and started searching for business resources.
He soon became involved in the center's efforts to help fellow veterans become entrepreneurs, which includes partnering with the city of Tucson on the Boots-to-Business workshop.
When the former president of EEC retired sooner than expected and he was thrust into a leadership role, he knew Kirton could help.
"We're a bunch of engineers, none of us went to school to be business owners," Montoya said. "We didn't know who the bank was, we didn't know who the lawyer was, we didn't know who the accountant was."
With the SBDC's guidance, the company was able to secure a line of credit, stabilize and continue to grow.
"Without Ellen or a resource like hers I don't know how we would be able to do it. I don't know how other people do it," Montoya said.
"Now, anybody that I find that says they have a small business, I tell them they should talk to Ellen. It's definitely worth their time."
Because the SBDC is funded by the SBA, it is not allowed to advertise, officials said, so the centers mainly rely on referrals.
"Unfortunately we remain too much of a best-kept secret," state director Washington said. "I spent many years owning and operating an accounting practice, and I didn't even know about the SBDC during that time. I wish I had."
Along with helping veterans, the SBDC has collaborated with the city on several other projects, said Mayor Jonathan Rothschild.
"Not enough people know about them and we need to get them more visibility because they do have an excellent track record in the state," he said.
The importance to the city is clear, Rothschild said.
"The more people we can start out with a good foundation, a good plan, the better chance they can take root and be a successful business in our community."