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HELP! Free Consulting for Entrepreneurs

The most successful business owners will tell you the reason for their success is because they are surrounded by people smarter than themselves. To some extent this is said tongue in cheek, but on another level the statement rings very true. Any Entrepreneur who believes that they can be an expert in all the facets of business ownership is only fooling them self. So where does a person go to find the help they need without opening their wallets and forking out much needed cash...below is the short list.
 
SBA Programs
 
Service Corps Of Retired Executives (SCORE)
SCORE is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the formation, growth and success of small businesses nationwide. The entire organization has 13 employees but is comprised of over 10,000 volunteers at over 380 offices nationwide. Formed in 1964, SCORE provides a public service to America by offering small business advice and training. 
 
The focus of the consulting at SCORE chapters around the nation has historically been business planning. However, there has been a shift in focus to mentoring through the sharing of seasoned volunteers’ experiences. This has been partly due to the advancement of technology (and the volunteers’ inability to keep up with the dizzying pace of technological changes) and partly due to the higher sophistication of today’s business planning. It should also be noted that the typical session is only one hour long, one day per week.
 
This is not to suggest that there are not capable SCORE counselors, in fact they serve perhaps a more important role in that they have the experience that it take to run a successful business not just get one started or plan for one. 
 
 
Small Business Development Centers (SBDC)
SBDC programs are the most comprehensive small business assistance network in the United States and its territories. The mission of the network is to help new entrepreneurs realize their dream of business ownership, and assist existing businesses to remain competitive in the complex marketplace of an ever-changing global economy. Hosted by leading universities, colleges and state economic development agencies and funded in part through a partnership with the U.S. Small Business Administration, approximately 1,000 service centers are available to provide no-cost consulting and low-cost training.
 
Historically the focus of SBDC center consultants has been in assisting clients with financial projections, loan packaging, and other business management issues. A strategic shift in the organization has changed SBDC’s role from these narrow areas into a more broad base of business development activities. 
 
SBDC counselors are start-up business and business planning experts. In addition, they are typically well versed in the loan programs available in your area. Also, SBDC counselors work closely with banks, investors and economic developers in more areas assisting existing businesses in expansion, retention and bailouts. Finally, SBDCs work with small businesses nationwide on specialized consulting services varying from financial analysis to government procurement to the buying or selling of a business.
 
SBDC offices are typically open five days a week 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM. Most consultants have a travel budget and can come to see you if necessary.  All of their services are provided for by tax dollars with the exception of some training event registration fees, to cover the cost of the overhead. SBDC counselors can spend dozens of hours with a client throughout many weeks on any subject they choose.
 
 
Women & Business Centers (WBC)
Women's Business Centers (WBCs) represent a national network of more than 100 educational resource centers. Designed to assist women start and grow small businesses.  WBCs operate with the mission to level the playing field for women entrepreneurs, who still face unique obstacles in the world of business.
 
Each women’s business center provides assistance and/or training in finance, management, marketing, procurement and the Internet, as well addressing specialized topics such as home-based businesses, corporate executive downsizing and welfare-to-work. All provide individual business counseling and access to the SBA’s programs and services; a number are also intermediaries for the SBA’s Micro-Loan and Loan Prequalification programs. Each WBC tailors its programs to the needs of its constituency; many offer programs and counseling in two or more languages.
 
 
Other “Free” Advice
Your Business Lender
Who knows better the ins and outs of business cash flows better than your commercial lender. For those of you in business you may have been told that you are in “violation of loan covenants”. Don’t ignore your lenders comments just because things may not be going so well financially…in fact this is the best time to speak with your lender. Business bankers are required to complete financial analysis to assess the risk in their portfolio. Take advantage of that analysis and use it to your benefit. Too many small business owners do not take a few hours to step back and look at how things are going financially in their business. You lender does this on at least an annual basis and you should do it quarterly if not monthly.
 
For those starting a business, don’t be afraid to ask your potential lender for advice on your plan/projections. Allow them to poke holes in it to see how well you are prepared. Then use their feedback to make your plan stronger leading to a higher chance of success once you obtain funding.
 
Former/Current Small Business Owners
Most people know somebody, who knows somebody, who owns or use to own a small business. Call them. Just do it, contact them, out of the blue and say “I am so-and-so and I am starting a small business. My friend/family/acquaintance told me that you run/ran a business and I was wondering if I could take you to lunch sometime and get some pointers from you.
 
This little exercise will do three things for you: 1) Dispel the myth that business owners are somehow different than other people. They are probably a little more pragmatic, their schedule may be more hectic, and they may be even a little eccentric…but 95% or more of them love to talk shop.  And, most would be happy to meet with you to help you out (unless you are going to compete with them). 2) It is great practice for talking to and persuading a stranger. Customers, initially, are strangers. Their perception of you and their judgment of whether or not to buy from you happens in less than 30 seconds. Honing your professionalism and delivery skills will help you more than any other activity in boosting your sales potential. 3) It will provide valuable advice. Business owners of any length of time have been through a lot. All entrepreneurs have made a misstep or two leading to costly and often painful consequences. Any sentence that starts out with “I remember one time…” open your ears and listen good so you can avoid making the same mistakes they did.
 
Summary
The important thing to remember is that you will save valuable time and money by enlisting the support of these free services. Check your arrogance, pride and fear at the door because you are there to learn how to be a better entrepreneur so that you can start a more successful business. 
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