The Wall Street Journal
By: Emily Maltby
November 3, 2010
Thirty minutes is set on a glowing timer at the far end of a vast conference room. Forty entrepreneurs walk in, and each takes a seat at a small table where a business counselor is waiting.
Barbara Steinberg needs help getting financing to launch a new product for her small Lincoln Park, N.J., consulting business, BLS Eldercare Financial Solutions. She sits across from Roger Ellert, who, like all the other counselors, is a volunteer for SCORE, an organization run through the Small Business Administration that offers free counseling to business owners throughout the country. The two have never met.
The timer begins its countdown and the room bursts with chatter as Ms. Steinberg and other the entrepreneurs describe their businesses -- and the challenges they're facing - to the SCORE representatives.
It's a Wednesday morning in Jersey City, N.J., and the 40 counselors - primarily retired business owners who hail from SCORE offices in the New York metropolitan area - are helping more than 200 business owners.
Thirty minutes may not seem like a lot of time to get professional input, but past events like this one - all free to the public - have proven successful at launching longer-term mentoring relationships. Since 2007, SCORE and American Express Co.'s small-business division, American Express OPEN, have partnered to bring speed-coaching events to regions across the U.S. It's what Kenneth Yancey Jr., the CEO of SCORE, calls "An opportunity to work on your business, not in your business."
SCORE counselors and the business owners they advise don't always agree on solutions for the problems they discuss. But the owners realize the benefit of brainstorming ideas and working through issues with someone who can provide an outside perspective.
Take Ms. Steinberg, whose business helps seniors (and their offspring) financially prepare for nursing-home, assisted-living and other such expenses. Right now, she creates visual presentations to show clients what their best options are, but she sees an opportunity in developing an online software, which will allow her clients to begin planning on their own. The problem is that she needs $50,000 to $100,000 to get it off the ground.
Mr. Ellert suggests applying for an SBA microloan, which will provide her with the lower-end of what she'll need, and then find the rest of the funding from within her company, perhaps by hiring another employee to bring in more sales. But Ms. Steinberg says the move would cost more money upfront and she isn't convinced it would generate enough business to cover the additional payroll expense.
Though after a minute of reflection, she says that perhaps she could hire a student to help out - particularly in the development and marketing of the software.
"We are establishing a relationship with Montclair State University," says Mr. Ellert, speaking of his SCORE chapter. "We can work on getting some college students."
As the timer hits zero, the two agree to set up a meeting in early December to continue the discussion.
Not all of the entrepreneurs showed up to solve a specific issue. Michelle Darden, for example, is a student at Seton Hall University. She took a day off of classes to attend the event because she wants to help her mom, the current owner of Kchelly's Beauty Center in Irvington, N.J.
"She's thinking of handing [the business] to me," explains Ms. Darden, who is currently a manager at the salon and beauty-supply store. "The business is growing, but slowly. The recession hit us hard, and product prices have gone up. We need to revamp."
Her counselor for the short session is Victor Fabry, who has been a SCORE volunteer since 2005. He admits early in the conversation that he doesn't know much about the beauty business, but he quickly spots a key flaw - Ms. Darden nor her mother have ever written a business plan.
"The business plan is not as important as a document as it is as a process," explains Mr. Fabry. "By putting together a plan, it forces you to think about and evaluate decisions you've made or will make."
Mr. Fabry provides Ms. Darden with a two-page guide for creating a business plan in less than an hour.
After the session, Ms. Darden says that she would outline the business plan with her mom, so that the next time she and Mr. Fabry meet, they can target specific growth strategies. Her greatest takeaway of the day, she says, is that there is huge value in seeking outside advice - even from those who aren't familiar with her industry.
"Many entrepreneurs start their business thinking, I can do this all by myself," she explains. "Yes, you'll start it alone, but you're never really in it alone."
Write to Emily Maltby at email@example.com