By Nancy Fischer
The Buffalo News, N.Y.
The excitement is palpable when someone decides to take the huge step to start their own business, to take an idea and run with it or take their family business to another level.
But beyond the excitement, there is a lot of hard work and planning.
The Niagara Small Business Development Center gives small-business owners and those who want to start one a leg up in the competition — and best of all, it’s free.
Lynn Oswald, director of the center, said many people don’t even know this service is available and often ask, “What’s the catch?”
She said so many people think they can just go on the Internet, but there are sites that are taking advantage of their dreams, promising them free money.
The Niagara center, which is supported by federal and state funds, offers one-on-one counseling that is completely confidential and nonjudgmental, said the soft-spoken Oswald in her plant-filled office at Niagara County Community College.
“We’ve been located here in Niagara County for 30 years,” she said. “It’s the best-kept secret around.”
The Small Business Development Center is a nationwide program, with 24 centers in New York State.
The Niagara center also has satellite offices in Lockport in the Bewley Building and the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute, and has a person embedded with the Niagara USA Chamber. The center is a partnership program with the U.S. Small Business Administration and is administered by the State University of New York.
Services include startup information, business plan development, financial analysis, assistance geared for women-owned and minority businesses, business certificates, loan sources, record-keeping, marketing, cash-flow projections, training, procurement and exporting.
In addition, the growing need to be part of the global marketplace is also addressed.
Oswald, 55, has headed the Niagara center for the past 5 1/2 years. She said she moved to the area 35 years ago, fell in love with Western New York and particularly enjoys meeting new people every day with interesting business ideas.
She and her husband of 33 years, Anthony, raised three children here and have two grandchildren.
She took time to share her “best-kept secret” with The Buffalo News.
Q: How did you get started in your job at the center?
A: I started as a business adviser. I just saw an ad in the paper and thought, wow this is a wonderful organization. You get to help people.
Q: What is your background?
A: My background is banking, specifically lending. I had finished my master’s when I answered the ad and immediately saw how wonderful the organization was. I was an adviser for seven years.
Q: What do advisers do?
A: We sit down with an individual and find out what their business idea is. Some are in the very early stages and some are expanding a current business. We have one gentleman who wants to open a third business. It runs the gamut and we help them plan. We are very big into “What is your first step and what do you need to make this project successful?”
Q: Did you see a lot of exciting businesses start and grow?
A: We definitely have seen some businesses grow. I wish I could brag about all the great businesses we’ve worked with, but because of confidentiality, we are not allowed to.
Q: But some have expanded?
A: Yes. Some have expanded to more than one location. Some have outgrown their location and have had to move to bigger locations.
Q: What do you provide to these business owners as a mentor at the center?
A: Some are very prepared and we help them do market research and planning, and help them put a loan package together for funding. Others are very early so we are getting into what it means to start a business. How prepared are you to do this? Can we research the markets a little bit? We are very big into planning. This includes three-year pro formas, where we help them see how their business will look on paper over the next three years, before they’ve risked any money, signed any leases.
Q: Did you ever tell someone their idea was a bad one?
A: I never want to judge because sometimes people can really surprise you. The ones you think are really ready decide not to do it and the ones you don’t think are ready move forward. I never want to be the one to say yes or no, this is a great idea, but I do want them to see challenges. If they decide not to start a business, then maybe we’ve saved them from a big mistake. They have to decide if it is the right time.
Q: Has your center grown in the past 30 years?
A: The organization has grown, but we were lucky to be one of the very first centers in the state, so we started out pretty strong and I think we have remained pretty strong.
Q:Are you an advising center or part of a countywide plan to grow and develop business?
A: We work closely with economic development officials throughout the county, but we are here to focus on the person. If the economic development corporations have a person who needs help they will send people to us to get help. We don’t favor any particular area or industry.
Q: Have you seen a change in the economy over time?
A: It certainly has changed, but the number of clients we work with has stayed pretty steady, but the stories have changed. During the recession we saw people who were laid off and thinking about starting a business. Now we are seeing businesses that are expanding and seeking loans.
Q: How about quirky businesses?
A: We’ve seen a lot of people making their own products, which has its own set of regulations and rules. You can’t just make cookies in your kitchen and go to the farmers market and sell them. You need to know what the rules are. But it’s not all retail. We have worked with industry and a couple of hotels.
Q: Can they be quite large?
A: They have to meet the SBA standard, so for most businesses that is up to 500 employees. So it really covers, pretty much, most of the businesses in Niagara County. We’ve worked with several larger manufacturers.
Q: You called yourself the best-kept secret. How do people hear about the center?
A: A lot of it is word of mouth. We work closely with bankers, getting referrals from local bankers. They may have a small business seeking funding and we will help them with the paperwork. We don’t write their business plans or loan package. They have to be very involved in the process, because it is a very good learning process, but we will help them make it look great and put the financial projections together.
Q: Why is a business plan so important?
A: I like to compare it to taking a vacation. If you plan, you get better rates and get a better idea of what you will be doing. The trip is more relaxing because you’ve planned. It’s the same thing with starting a business. The more you plan, the more you can anticipate problems that arise or hidden costs. We don’t want them to get halfway through a project and run out of money.
Q: Don’t a lot of small businesses fail?
A: If you look at statistically why businesses fail, it’s lack of planning, lack of proper capital. And if they don’t have proper capital, that means they didn’t plan or they are overly optimistic about how fast sales will come in. How are you going to market it? What are the expenses? We really try to plan — I know I’ve said plan a lot, but this is a major investment for people. You’d be amazed how many people want to wing it. It’s not so rigid. It’s a guide. Many go into business because they love what they do, but that doesn’t mean they have a background in accounting, marketing, legal issues. It’s quite a life commitment.
In July and August, the Small Business Development Center will offer free summer business workshops in the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute, 28 Old Falls St., Room 234. All the classes are from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m.
Here are the topics:
–July 14 — Business organization forms: sole proprietorship, partnership, limited liability corporations and corporations.
–July 22 — Financial sources and business plan development.
–July 29 — Developing a marketing plan.
–Aug. 5 — Record-keeping for small business.
–Aug. 12 — Using Facebook to promote your business.
To register for classes or find out more about the Small Business Development Center, call 210-2515, send an email to email@example.com, or visit the website at niagarasbdc.org.