From the June 1999 issue of Entrepreneur

The bad news: Starting a company is tough. The good news: Plenty of help is available for the asking. Even better news: Most of it's free, and you don't have to go far to find it. Here are five of the top sources for start-up help:


Bob Weinstein is the author of 10 books and is a frequent contributor to national magazines.

Small Business Development Centers (SBDC)

Administered and funded by the SBA, SBDC programs offer management assistance to new and established business owners. There are 57 SBDCs with a network of nearly 1,000 service offices--with locations in each of the 50 states; Washington, DC; Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands--and more than 70 branch locations. A "lead" organization sponsors the SBDC and manages each program, coordinating services for subcenters and satellite locations at colleges, universities, community colleges, vocational schools, chambers of commerce and economic development corporations.

Because SBDCs are hotbeds for entrepreneurial activity, they're a good place to get expert advice. "You'd be nuts not to take advantage of an SBDC," says Gina Mattei, director of training at the University of Houston's SBDC. Like most SBDCs, Mattei's center offers A to Z information for start-up entrepreneurs. "We take them through all the key steps, from idea to product completion and everything else in between," she explains. "We even walk them through the Yellow Pages to help them find the best local assistance available."

Mattei says one of the principal advantages of SBDCs is that, while they're funded by the SBA, most are part of a college or university and are staffed by paid professionals. "Entrepreneurs can avail themselves of many business services offered by that particular institution," she explains. "[Services] vary all over the country, depending on the school and its facilities."

Mattei says her staff can take start-up entrepreneurs through the entire business-generation process. "First, we have them do a feasibility study, which is simply a method of figuring out what the proposed company looks like on paper," she says. "The feasibility study examines all the critical issues, including the product, production costs, unique qualities, market, competition and financing. Then we determine what kind of experts are needed. If the entrepreneur plans to ship products abroad, we bring in an international expert with importing and exporting experience. If a factory is necessary, we bring in someone from our Manufacturing Assistance Center. If there are technical issues, we hook the entrepreneur up with someone from our computer science department."

Although all-around assistance is what it's known for, Mattei says her SBDC also attracts entrepreneurs with very specific problems. Mattei recalls a client who ran a small catering business out of her home. Her problem? She needed a commercial facility and didn't know how to go about getting it. Mattei assigned an appropriate finance expert who evaluated her needs and helped her get financing. Today, she's running a thriving catering business out of a commercial site.

Speaking for all the people who work at SBDCs, Mattei says their role is to provide honest advice. "We have no ulterior motives," she says. "We want the entrepreneurs who come to us to be successful."

To find the SBDC nearest you, call (703) 271-8700 or visit its Web site at http://www.asbdc-us.org

Entrepreneurial Centers

Another underutilized business resource is the entrepreneurial center. As companies continue to shed their human cargo, more than 300 colleges have started teaching some variation of an entrepreneurial curriculum that includes courses, lectures, seminars, workshops, and degree and outreach programs.

The University of Southern California boasts a comprehensive entrepreneurial program, implemented in 1971, as does The Arthur M. Blank Center for Entrepreneurship at Babson College. Harvard University, The Wharton School and dozens of others throughout the United States also offer entrepreneurial programs.

Here's a ready-made opportunity to hook up with others who are seeking help. Most entrepreneurs take courses or work with teachers or students to strengthen their business practices. Entrepreneurial centers also present fertile networking opportunities for start-up entrepreneurs.

Dennis Ackerman, director of the Bank of America Entrepreneurial Center at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, says entrepreneurial centers provide more in-depth advice than SBDCs and tend to cater to entrepreneurs with more business experience. Explains Wendell Dunn, a professor and executive director of the Batten Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership at the Darden School at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, "We tend to be a research center and think tank, addressing issues such as how new businesses [originate] and how wealth is created."

In short, entrepreneurial centers often offer an explanation of the theories behind business practices, whereas SBDCs focus on the nuts-and-bolts techniques for starting a business from scratch. "SBDCs provide business advice to entrepreneurs within the community, whereas entrepreneurial centers are academically linked to a college or university and provide a curriculum for students with an outreach program for entrepreneurs in the community," says Dunn.

While many SBDCs are associated with colleges, most operate independently from the school and the services available to entrepreneurs are standardized. At entrepreneurial centers, however, services available to entrepreneurs vary. At some schools, they're provided by faculty; at others, they're provided by graduate business students.

One thing most entrepreneurial centers are equipped to do is steer entrepreneurs to the best resources throughout their state. Ackerman also points out that most entrepreneurial centers specialize in key industries. Old Dominion's entrepreneurial center, for example, specializes in technology. If you have a hot new software product or your goal is to be an Internet service provider or systems integrator, Old Dominion is the place to get cutting-edge advice. But if you're opening a small restaurant featuring gourmet vegetarian cuisine, you'd be wasting your time going there.

There are also entrepreneurial centers, like the Nebraska Center For Entrepreneurship at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, that provide both specialized and general information primarily to students and secondly to non-student clients.

Most services initially provided by entrepreneurial centers are free, while many schools, like Old Dominion, require entrepreneurs to pay a small fee once their company is profitable or after it reaches a certain equity, debt or sales goal.

Since all entrepreneurial centers are not created equal, it's critical you find out whether each provides the help you need via a meeting with its director.

Banks

Another excellent source of free assistance is your local bank. Lyle Frederickson, senior vice president of the First Capital Bank of Arizona in Phoenix, says small community banks are happy to work with start-up entrepreneurs and offer valuable financial advice. Their incentive, Frederickson says, is that there's a good chance the person will become a bank customer.

While small banks may be the obvious choice, Sonia Barbara of the American Bankers Association advises entrepreneurs not to dismiss large banks. "Big banks are just as willing to make small-business loans as small banks are," she says. "Small banks have been the traditional source for start-ups, but now big banks have joined the fold and are aggressively competing for small-business customers."

Barbara advises shopping around and talking to several banks, both small and large, to find the one that best meets your needs. "It comes down to forging comfortable relationships," she says. "Your goal should be to make your banker a business partner."

Service Corps Of Retired Executives (SCORE)

Affiliated with the SBA for 35 years, SCORE counselors help start-up entrepreneurs realize their dreams. With 389 SCORE offices throughout the country, there's probably one close to you. They provide many of the same services offered by SBDCs, with one major difference: The person you work with is retired and has worked in your industry--and possibly run a similar or identical business. And unlike the staff at SBDCs and entrepreneurial centers, SCORE counselors, whose average age is 71, volunteer their time.

The beauty of forming a relationship with a SCORE counselor, according to Ken Yancey, executive director of SCORE Counselors to America's Small Business, in Washington, DC. , is you're getting information from someone familiar with the ins and outs of your industry. Because SCORE counselors are older and experienced, it's easy to develop a mentor-mentee relationship. "We've documented relationships that have lasted more than 20 years," says Yancey.

Like the people who work at SBDCs, SCORE counselors point the way to vendors and suppliers, and help you open doors to those hard-to-crack markets. And SCORE counselors often give you as much time as you need. In the very beginning, start-up entrepreneurs typically require more time--as much as a few hours a month. Once the business is successfully launched, SCORE counselors schedule monthly or quarterly check-up summary meetings. Every meeting has an agenda, and the entrepreneur is required to accomplish certain goals.

SCORE offices are easy to find; to locate one near you, visit http://www.score.org

Trade or Professional Organizations

Name an industry, and we guarantee there are maybe two, possibly a handful, of trade or professional associations that serve it. All industry associations are not the same, however. The big, well-funded ones have more power and, naturally, are better information sources. Some have thousands of members spread across the United States, whereas small regional ones may have only a few hundred or a few dozen. Keep in mind, either type can be useful if you make valuable connections.

And connections are key. You're bound to pick up leads from people in your industry--for example, information on the best vendors, outlets for raw materials, market data, hot trends and so on. The more contacts you make, the better the odds of capturing exclusive information.

A great source for locating all the associations serving your industry is the Encyclopedia of Associations (Gale Research), available at most public libraries. Expect to uncover associations you've never heard of. New organizations in virtually all industries are started daily.

It also doesn't hurt to stay on top of industry publications. Like trade organizations, some carry more clout than others. The sheer size of a publication tells you a lot. Many are gorged with news, events, opinions and information you might deem valuable in launching your business.

These are just a few of the top sources for start-up help. Once you start talking to people, you'll uncover others. It also pays to regularly surf the Net for start-up advice. Many banks have Web sites offering advice and some of the financial sites, such as Motley Fool (http://www.fool.com) and financial publications such as The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition (http://www.wsj.com), also feature articles about launching a business. The best advice is to keep your eyes peeled. Do that, and we guarantee you'll uncover more information than you need.

Contact Sources

Bank of America Entrepreneurial Center,dennis@infi.net

Batten Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership,battencenter@darden.gbus.virginia.edu, http://www.darden.virginia.edu

First Capital Bank of Arizona, 2700 N. Central, #210, Phoenix, AZ 85004, (602) 240-2700

Nebraska Center For Entrepreneurship, University of Nebraska, 209 College of Business Administration University of Nebraska, Lincoln, NE 68586-0487, http://www.cba.unl.edu/additional/ent

University of Houston Small Business Development Center, 1100 Louisiana, #500, Houston, TX 77002, (713) 752-8444