From the April 1998 issue of Startups

The saying "You get what you pay for" doesn't apply to the affordable, often free, expert help available for start-up entrepreneurs from the SBA. Seminars, individual counseling and free computer time are just some of the services the SBA provides through Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs), the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) and Business Information Centers (BICs). Here's a closer look at what each can offer you.

Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs)
According to Johnnie Albertson, associate administrator for the Small Business Development Centers, there are more than 1,000 SBDCs nationwide offering free individual counseling as well as low-cost business workshops. Most SBDC offerings are planned on a state and local basis, meaning they're tailored to your area's economic needs.

Many centers specialize in just one facet of business, such as international trade, finance, procurement, marketing, technology transfer or accounting. Some lucky cities have SBDC incubators--large buildings where fledgling businesses can not only rent office space but also receive secretarial support and start-up counseling and assistance.

Because SBDCs are sometimes located on college campuses, Albertson says, many people have the misconception that the advisors are professors with little knowledge of the rough-and-tumble real world. But while SBDC staff members may have academic training, they also have business experience. The counseling is offered on an ongoing basis for as long as you need it, and you can see the same counselor each time so he or she becomes familiar with your business.

Although small businesses vary so much that it's difficult to summarize all the types of help they can get from SBDCs, workshop topics often include marketing, preparing a business plan and obtaining financing. SBDCs can even help you find start-up funds, whether from the SBA or other sources. "We find the best deal for each business," explains Albertson. "Last fiscal year, the SBDC found clients $3.2 billion in non-SBA financing."

The Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE)
SCORE is a volunteer group funded by SBA grants. Like the SBDCs, SCORE chapters provide individual counseling as well as group workshops. Monika Edwards Harrison, associate administrator for business initiatives at the SBA, says the approximately 12,500 SCORE volunteers nationwide have experience in virtually every industry and every size business, from sole proprietorships to Fortune 500 companies. They include former CEOs, comptrollers, electrical engineers--all the positions possible.

The chances of finding someone in your local SCORE chapter who can answer general business questions are excellent, Harrison says, although some new industries may not be covered in all chapters. SCORE has a national skills database that helps match counselors with clients who need their expertise. There is also a Web site where you can enter the type of help you're looking for and get counseling online.

One of the most popular types of training SCORE offers is the pre-business workshop, designed for people who are thinking about starting a business but still need to focus their ideas. "[The workshops cover] all the things people should think about to make an informed decision when starting, growing and running a business," Harrison says. Although workshops vary from chapter to chapter depending on the needs of the local audience, topics covered may include planning, financing, insurance, pricing products, record-keeping, buying a franchise and incorporating.

Business Information Centers (BICs)
BICs are another SBA resource you can't afford not to know about. With 42 nationwide and another 22 in development, plus 18 Tribal BICs on Indian reservations across the country, BICs are not yet as numerous as SCORE offices or SBDCs, but the program is growing and its offerings are rich. Completely free to use, most BICs are a grownup's playground of computers loaded with business software and Internet access. You can also browse through videotapes, CDs and entire reference libraries of several business publishers. In short, a BIC offers all the tools of a good public library but with a special focus on small business.

BICs are staffed by SCORE volunteers or SBDC staff. Providing someone to help you navigate the information and find what is relevant to you makes BICs "more than computers in a room. It's the combination of electronic and human resources that works the magic," says Harrison.

Starting a business is not something you do every day, so don't expect to know every step you have to take. That's what the SBA is for. With services that are affordable for every budget, the SBA could be your best first step toward getting your business up and running.

To find SBA offices, look in the government pages of the phone book or call information for the number of your nearest district office. The SBA's toll-free answer desk, (800) 827-5722, has operators working Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. EST, and offers 24-hour access to recorded information. Access the SBA's Web site at www.sba.gov or the SCORE site at www.score.org

Business Plans
Business plans are a popular seminar topic for both SCORE and SBDCs, and BICs typically have several interactive programs to help you develop complete business plans. "The business plan is the key to your success," says Viola Canales, regional SBA administrator for Arizona, California, Guam, Hawaii and Nevada. "One, it helps you think about what you want your small business to do and be. A lot of people have great ideas, but they haven't thought them out. When they put pen to paper, they find gaps--gaps that we can help them fill. Two, if you're serious about getting financing from a bank, you need a good business plan or you're wasting your time. Business plans scare people, but we can help."


Karen Roy is a freelance business writer in Richmond, California.