Reviewing all the programs the SBA operates is like visiting Willie Wonka's chocolate factory: There are so many good things to see, you don't know where to begin. Entrepreneur's HomeOffice conducted an exhaustive search to uncover the little-known programs that help homebased entrepreneurs grow their businesses. Here's what we found:
Uncle Sam Online
The SBA Web site is a great place to start if you want an overview of this federal agency's offerings. At http://www.sba.gov, you'll find everything from news to a business plan workshop to an entrepreneurial quiz that tests your success quotient.
If, for example, you've been running your business on sheer guts, determination and industry knowledge and now want to write or update your business plan, visit http://www.sbaonline.sba.gov/starting/businessplan.html for a detailed outline to guide you through the process.
The start button (under "Counseling and Resources") is also home to the SBA Resource Directory for Small Business Management, which puts out a series of brochures. These publications give you information about business issues such as family succession planning and managing a growing enterprise.
And getting help won't break the bank--most of the publications cost between $2 and $4. The videotape series is not as extensive, but it includes a section that discusses how to operate a productive, profitable homebased company, with segments on designing your home office, avoiding isolation by networking, and building an image. Each video costs $27 and comes with a workbook.
Women On Board
Women can find a wealth of information at http://www.sbaonline.sba.gov/womeninbusiness/wnet.html Did you know the SBA can help you find a mentor? Through its Women's Network for Entrepreneurial Training, the Office of Women's Business Ownership hooks entrepreneurs up with mentors. The program targets women who have owned a business for at least one year and are ready to grow.
To qualify, you must demonstrate strong entrepreneurial skills and show potential for continued success--plus be willing to spend an average of four hours per month with a mentor for one year and apply the advice received.
If you've got a problem with a local, state or federal government policy you feel is hurting your business and others in your industry, a regional advocate of the SBA Office of Advocacy may be just the person to see. Regional advocates monitor the impact of local, state and federal regulations and policies on local business communities, and work with federal and state officials to create business-friendly environments. A list of these 10 advocates can be found at http://www.sbaonline.sba.gov/ADVO/advocate.html
Taking The Initiative
The Office of Business Initiatives Web page (http://www.sba.gov/BI) tests your entrepreneurial knowledge with its Success Quiz. (Yes, I took the test and scored in the second-highest bracket, thank you.)
If you want to find a Service Corps of Retired Executives office, a business information center or a one-stop capital shop, this is the place to go. This page also happens to be another way to get to the Resource Directory for Small Business Management (see "Uncle Sam Online," left).
While you're on this Web page, check out the segment that explains how e-commerce enhances your business. This includes an introduction to Electronic Data Interchange (EDI), plus an explanation of what it takes to get your computer system up to snuff. The Business Initiatives page also offers information on various scams targeting small-business owners.
A Little Help From Friends
Much can change in 30 years, a fact Kathy Sanders Martin, 51 (pictured on page 85), was well- aware of when she decided to open her Nampa, Idaho, consulting firm two years ago.
"Having been gone [from Nampa] for 30 years [due to a relocation], I lost contact with people in the business community. It was like starting from scratch," remembers the owner of Custom Business Projects, which assists people with their business plans and marketing plans.
A chance sighting of a conference notice in her local paper's business section provided Martin with a valuable networking avenue. The important announcement: The Women's Network for Entrepreneurial Training (WNET) was hosting a trade show for women. "That was my first contact with WNET, when I was really in the early stages of putting together my business plan," Martin says. "I thought WNET was a great way to meet other women in the business community."
Not one to merely attend, Martin immediately got involved in the Idaho WNET by first participating in one of the group's round-table conferences, then volunteering to help put together a marketing plan for the organization. In the process, she became a WNET mentor.
"When I did the marketing plan, a committee of six women helped me, and one of my goals was to show them how to go through the process of putting together a marketing plan--understanding the competition, developing a marketing strategy," Martin says. "Then they could take this information back and apply it directly to their businesses."
This mentoring program is one of the key components of WNET, says Martin. Each year, the organization holds three conferences that provide information on topics such as customer service, marketing, operations and strategic planning. After the larger conferences, smaller groups of women meet regularly for one to two hours in mini-WNETs to learn more about subjects explored at the larger meetings.
"These mini-WNETs often become very tightknit groups," says Martin. "They typically each have a different focus and give lots of moral support."
Editor's Note: Each WNET mentoring program operates individually. Some, like the Idaho organization, have moved away from the program's original one-on-one counseling. To find out about your local WNET, contact your nearest SBA office.
Custom Business Projects, (208) 463-9308, firstname.lastname@example.org