By Rick Rouan
The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Last week, Columbus and the university’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship launched a pilot program that will help nonprofits and small businesses with consulting services and analysis they otherwise couldn’t afford. The city seeded the program with $20,000 this year.
The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio
Julie Smith has $9,000 in her budget this year to update the stock of power tools, lawn equipment and other hardware in the nonprofit tool library she runs on the East Side.
After salaries, new tools and paying for warehouse space, the budget for Rebuilding Together Central Ohio doesn’t leave much room for marketing. That makes it harder to recruit new members and new donors, Smith said.
“There are a lot of people who could benefit from the tool library,” she said.
Soon, with the help of some Ohio State University students, maybe more will benefit.
Last week, Columbus and the university’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship launched a pilot program that will help nonprofits and small businesses with consulting services and analysis they otherwise couldn’t afford. The city seeded the program with $20,000 this year.
Students will help nonprofits and small businesses develop game plans to reach more people or expand. Entrepreneurs often are too caught up in running their businesses day-to-day to think about their futures, said Paul Reeder, the center’s executive director.
“For a small-business owner, this is done between midnight and 2 a.m.,” he said. “We’re going to bring in a team that you don’t have to pay for that’s going to build that next step.”
For Rebuilding Together, that means Fisher College of Business Students will help Smith figure out how to reach beyond low-income members who traditionally have used the tool library.
They also will work with Michael Watkins at Watt 1 Electrical Systems. Watkins said he wants to expand his business to specialize more in solar energy.
“I want to really focus on renewable energy,” he said. “I do see it being one of those emerging fields.”
Reeder said he wants students to approach the work as if they are board members who have a vested interest in making sure the company succeeds. Through that “experiential learning,” he expects students to learn from Smith and Watkins as much as they help them.
“This is not the romanticized view you see on ‘Shark Tank’,” he said. “This is hard work.”
Last week, students started learning the basics about how Rebuilding Together and Watt 1 work. Smith gave them tours of the warehouse “library” where the nonprofit holds equipment available for loan.
Memberships are sold on a sliding scale based on income. At most, a user pays $40 for a year of borrowing from the library of more than 200 types of tools, including power saws and large lawn equipment.
Most of the 8,400 members are low-income, she said, because that is where the nonprofit has concentrated since taking over from the city in 2009. But Smith said the library is open to anyone, and she wants to “expand the audience.”
Throughout the fall, students will learn more about the structure, management, finances and planning at Rebuilding Together and Watt 1. In the spring, they will work on rolling out plans.
The city is trying to do more to help small businesses that don’t have the same resources as large firms and to promote entrepreneurship, said Zach Klein, Columbus City Council president.
Last week, the council approved spending another $30,000 on entrepreneurship training for people who are in jail. Klein said the city has to help small businesses expand in balance with its efforts to attract large companies.
“Like any good stock portfolio, you want to have a balanced investment,” he said. “You have to balance your investment as a city not only on attraction, but on retention and expansion.”