In an economy where credit is tight and sales are sagging, starting and running a business is a precise science. But how do you learn to write a bulletproof business plan, collect cash already owed or create new revenue streams? You talk to someone who’s “been there, done that.” Fortunately, two organizations with local chapters have counselors and facilitators eager to offer sage business advice: the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) and The Alternative Board (TAB).
Both offer mentoring and counseling for owners and key decision makers of small- to medium-sized businesses through different avenues. SCORE provides free, one-on-one counseling and low-cost workshops with retired business executives. TAB clients pay a membership fee for participation in monthly peer advisory meetings and one-on-one counseling by a TAB-certified facilitator.
Both organizations have counselors and facilitators whose business acumen makes them invaluable: They’ve started and sold businesses, held high posts in multinational corporations, accumulated decades of experience in all facets of running a business and now bring their hard-won experience to the table to help other entrepreneurs and executives avoid pitfalls and achieve profitability.
Established in 1964, SCORE has approximately 10,500 volunteer counselors nationwide and national headquarters in Herndon, Va., and Washington, D.C. Funded primarily by the Small Business Administration (SBA), the organization uses retired executives to help clients work through the process of starting a business, from writing a business plan to securing loans.
The first meeting with a client is generally held in person, according to Schuyler Jeffries, chair of the North Coast Chapter of SCORE, which covers Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino and Humboldt counties. In Santa Rosa, SCORE counselors meet with clients at the offices of SAFE-BIDCO (a corporation that assists small business owners in obtaining loans), and sometimes at the federal building within space allocated to the SBA. In Napa, the counselors meet with clients at the Napa Chamber of Commerce.
“We prefer to have the first meeting in person, because it’s easier to read the client when you’re face to face,” says Jeffries, who, before retirement, owned an architectural firm and served as mayor of Santa Rosa. “Very often, in the first 10 or 15 minutes, you can get pretty good clues to the problems and opportunities you’re going to have in counseling the client,” he says.
“During the first meeting, it’s not necessary to have a counselor who links right into that client’s specific needs, other than showing him how to develop a business plan. We’re all generalists in that sense,” continues Jeffries. “Once we identify the specific needs of a client, we can bring in other counselors with experience in those areas.”
Subsequent counseling can occur by email or telephone and continues as long as needed. Counseling relationships can be as brief as one session or can last for years, with a flurry of activity during the startup phase and intermittent contacts for advice on specific issues as the business develops.
SCORE also conducts low-cost workshops (the registration fee is $45) on selected topics, such as “How to Start and Manage a Small Business” and “Opening and Operating a Restaurant.”
TAB, around since 1990, has an international scope and is headquartered in Denver, Colo. Franchise owners form boards composed of 10 to 12 key decision makers from different, non-competing businesses within their region.
Members pay a one-time initiation fee and a monthly fee for their membership on the boards. In return, they attend monthly four-hour board meetings, facilitated by the franchise owner, where they can receive advice from their fellow board members on the challenges of running a company. Board members also receive one hour of individual counseling from the local TAB facilitator per month.
Bud Seith owns the TAB franchise that includes Marin, Sonoma and Napa counties and the 80 corridor to West Sacramento. He currently works with two boards in Sonoma County and two in Marin County. According to Seith, the board meetings touch upon subjects ranging from developing sales and marketing plans, managing operations and financial issues to solving performance needs. The idea is to create a “think tank” type of environment, where board members can combine their experience and skills to help each other’s businesses grow and prosper.
“About half of the meeting is devoted to sharing opportunities and challenges, and each member brings an issue to discuss,” says Seith. “Then the whole group focuses on giving confidential counsel and advice. This is really powerful. If you have nine other people sitting around the table who each have 20 or 25 years of businesses experience, that’s almost 200 years of seasoned experience focused on your challenge. We also focus on learning through outside guest speakers and providing opportunities for self-development.”
Life for business owners and high-placed executives can often be lonely, particularly when it comes to making tough decisions, points out Seith. “When I was a VP at Xerox, my division had its plans and goals, but I didn’t really have anyone to talk to. I didn’t have the kind of intimate advisory TAB provides.”
You can find plenty of folks who will say either approach works; both SCORE and TAB can point to numerous businesses that were “saved” or (in the case of SCORE, successfully started) with the help of their counselors.
One SCORE success story is HobbyTown USA, a franchise-based toy and hobby store in Petaluma owned by Steve and Jean Elliott. Familiar with SCORE from having started a computer graphics consultancy in Illinois in 1991, Steve Elliott sought SCORE assistance after he moved to California in 1994 and decided to open HobbyTown.
“SCORE helped me develop my business plan and find funding,” says Elliott. “They had folks I could talk to about starting up a retail business, finding a business loan and dealing with franchise organizations. They had people with expertise in all those areas.”
Four years after opening the business, Elliott reports, “From the day we opened, we’ve done well. By our second year in business, we reached the top 25 percent with the HobbyTown national franchise in terms of operating efficiency and profitability.”
Jay Jensen, CEO of Novavine, a grapevine nursery near Kenwood, gives TAB credit for helping his company evolve. At the time Jensen took over day-to-day operations of Novavine, its future was in doubt. “The business model wasn’t working,” says Jensen. “We were struggling on production, cash flow—a lot of basic business principles.”
Invited to join one of the Sonoma County TAB boards in 2004, Jensen seized the opportunity. He’s been a member ever since. “TAB doesn’t come in and tell you how to ‘do it,’” says Jensen. “It provides tools, support and counsel on how to tap into who you are.” The tools to which Jensen refers include a monthly newsletter called “Tips from the Top,” a series of business planning and analytic tools, and access to a community of more than 3,000 TAB members and several hundred certified facilitators for networking on selected subjects.
Jensen finds both the peer mentoring and one-on-one counseling valuable, particularly in helping him maintain a sense of perspective and progress. “If I sit down with Bud and say, ‘Our cash flow is terrible’ or ‘I don’t know how we’re going to get there,’ he’s very good at helping me take a step back, look at things we’ve implemented, and realize how far we’ve come. He helps me stay on track.”
The formula of peer and individual counseling has worked wonders for Jensen and Novavine. “Four years ago, we hadn’t made a profit in our entire existence—and Novavine started in 1998,” he states. “The last three years, we’ve been profitable with increasing revenue every year. It’s very exciting, and we’re on a great course.”
Seith feels one of the approaches that sets TAB apart is its focus on aligning a business’ course to its owner’s personal hopes and needs. It’s what TAB calls a “pocket vision.”
“We focus on what you, as the business owner or manager, want out of your business,” says Seith. “Do you want to be well off financially? Do you want to have more balance in your life? As business people, we don’t always focus very well on these things. But if you want your business to be personally fulfilling, you have to design it that way.”
As an example, Seith cites a woman who owns an architectural glass studio in Sonoma County. Eventually, circumstances dictated she also assume control of managing company operations. Having joined TAB, she’s since excelled in the nuts and bolts of managing all aspects of her business, including finance, accounting, contract control, human resources and operations.
“She learned and grew and received all kinds of support from all the members,” says Seith. “In five years, she went from just barely hanging on to last year achieving a gross profit in six figures. She’s still a creative artist doing world-class work for clients around the country, but now she has a business that runs more like a Swiss watch.”
David Mendelsohn, a SCORE counselor who works with clients in Napa, emphasizes the service he provides constitutes coaching—that is, asking questions that help bring a client’s own ingenuity, desires and drive to the fore. “This is a personal thing, not necessarily a SCORE policy,” says Mendelsohn, “but I distinguish between counseling and consulting. A consultant is someone you hire to do something for you because you don’t know how, you don’t have time, or you don’t want to do it. A counselor is someone who’ll tell you what he thinks you need to know so you can do it yourself and who’ll critique your work.”
Steve Elliott, owner of HobbyTown, agrees that SCORE’s goal isn’t to handle all the details but to serve as a resource when questions arise. “They’re a very good reality check to make sure what you’re doing has a solid foundation under it,” says Elliott. “They’re not spoon feeding you, but helping you figure things out and making sure you cover all the bases. It’s still your business, your ideas, your responsibility.”
Over the eight years he’s been counseling, Mendelsohn has seen clients from all walks of life, with varying levels of experience and capability. Even the simplest business model can succeed, he says, given patience and diligence—and success can be measured in different ways.
He recalls one developmentally disabled man who had a pickup truck and a desire to start a hauling business. Mendelsohn helped the client obtain the $100 he needed to place a sign on his truck and advised him to advertise in the local paper. “He eventually developed his hauling business to the extent that he was able to get off subsidy from the state,” says Mendelsohn. “To my knowledge, he’s still hauling, and it makes me feel really good when I see him driving around town.”
Among the most common mistakes a business owner can make is viewing business ownership as a part-time proposition or treating it like a hobby, according to Mendelsohn, who, during his career, started Telecheck (a check approval business in the Bay Area), was a part owner in BASS ticket agency and worked as a vice president with Bank of America and World Airways.
As an example, Mendelsohn points to two women who owned a restaurant in Napa but lived in other cities, so they took turns visiting the business once a week. “This approach doesn’t work. You have to be there every day, watching the cash register and supervising the employees, or at least have a manager. They sold it within a few weeks.”
Sometimes the greatest service a counselor can perform is to dissuade a would-be entrepreneur from launching into a business venture if he or she lacks the gumption to see it through. “Not everyone should go into business,” says Mendelsohn. “Some people don’t understand what it takes—the commitment, the resources and the risks. Not everyone is equipped, psychologically, to do it.”
Since its inception, SCORE has primarily served startups, but the current state of the economy is prompting the venerable organization to turn its attention to helping companies stay in business. “We’re shifting gears and developing workshops to assist existing small businesses that are running into trouble or not seeing opportunities to expand,” explains Jeffries.
Working through professional and trade organizations, Jeffries foresees SCORE providing workshops on key areas needed for survival in tough times, such as how to collect on overdue account receivables. “That’s a real problem area,” he says. “A lot of businesses haven’t faced that problem before, because they’ve always been paid on time. Now things are changing.”
Both SCORE and TAB offer a wealth of resources and tools aside from the one-on-one and peer counseling. A one-time $750 TAB initiation fee gives you access to TAB’s online business tools, newsletter and network of facilitators and members.
SCORE also provides resources through its local chapter’s website, www.ncscore.org, and its national website, www.score.org, including e-newsletters, online business advice from experts, templates for business plans and sales forecasts, and links to financing sources.
At the end of the day, though, the focused, interactive coaching provided by SCORE and TAB probably provides the most valuable service to clients. “It’s incredibly comforting to sit down and discuss issues with business owners who’ve been in the same place as I have, struggled with the same issues and fought the same battles,” says Jay Jensen of Novavine.
With an uncertain financial forecast ahead, what entrepreneur can afford not to take advantage of all the tools and advice he or she can get? TAB’s and SCORE’s coaches and mentors can help you build your business, avoid costly mistakes, create a strong foundation and recognize opportunities to expand. At a minimum, having a trusted group of advisers in your corner—who’d like nothing better than to see you and your enterprise succeed—makes the risks of starting or running a business seem a little more manageable.
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