From the December 1999 issue of Entrepreneur

Historically, colleges and universities have been the training ground for "corporate suits," teaching students how to work for big companies, not how to start their own small ones. But pushed by the needs of a changing business environment, institutes of higher education are becoming an increasingly valuable resource for start-ups.

Outside their regular degree programs, colleges provide a wide range of workshops and seminars on various aspects of entrepreneurship, along with one-on-one mentoring programs. In addition, schools of specific disciplines, such as business and law, are offering what amounts to free and low-cost consulting and professional services to start-ups and growing small businesses.

Here's a sampling of the programs available through colleges and universities nationwide:

Program: Small Business Institute (SBI)

Universities/locations: Approximately 250 colleges and universities nationwide (plus several international universities), usually via business schools

Description: Teams of qualified senior-level or graduate business students, under expert faculty supervision, provide consulting to small-business owners and managers as part of their educational training. The students conduct in-depth consulting and field case projects to analyze and create solutions for specific business problems. Services are provided on a no-charge or nominal-fee basis.

Contact your nearest university's business school or visit the SBI Directors Association at http://www.sbida.org You can also contact Ronald Cook at the Rider University College of Business in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, (609) 895-5522, fax: (609) 896-5304, cookr@rider.edu

Program: Kenan-Flagler Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology Venturing

University/location: Kenan-Flagler Business School, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Description: The center provides a wide range of services to start-up, small and midsized businesses through formal classes, counseling programs, competitions, internships and other projects.

Contact Jeff Reid, executive director, (919) 962-2031, eship@unc.edu, http://www.bschool.unc.edu

Program: Irvine Center for Applied Competitive Technologies

University/location: Irvine Valley College, Irvine, California

Description: This resource helps start-up and expanding small businesses find the capital they need and develop business plans. The center also provides technical and business assistance as well as other types of training.

Contact Larry DeShazer, director, (949) 451-5203, fax: (949) 451-5648, http://www.irvinecact.com

Program: Small Business Opportunity Clinic (SBOC)

University/location: Northwestern University School of Law, Evanston, Illinois

Description: SBOC provides legal assistance to entrepreneurs, start-up companies and nonprofit organizations located primarily in the Chicago metropolitan area. Services are provided on a confidential basis by upper-level law students under the direction of an experienced attorney. The clinic's rates for the service are significantly lower than what you would pay an attorney working in private practice.

Contact Thomas Morsch, director, (312) 503-0321, tmorsch@nwu.edu, http://www.law.nwu.edu/small-business

Program: Entrepreneurial Development Center

University/location: Drexel University, Philadelphia

Description: works with both the student and local entrepreneurial communities to promote networking, offer information and expertise, provide seed capital, and establish partnerships between start-up businesses and the university plus various outside resources.

Contact Bill Deane, (215) 895-1733, deanewb@drexel.edu

Program: Linking Investors to Georgia High Technology (LIGHT)

Universities/locations: Georgia Center for Advanced Telecommunications Technology (GCATT) and Georgia Institute of Technology, both in Atlanta

Description: The program holds monthly meetings during which entrepreneurs polish their business plans and presentation skills, investors identify and evaluate promising opportunities, and corporate developers identify candidates for joint ventures or acquisitions. Events are free and open to the public.

Contact Steven Spell, associate director of communications, GCATT, (404) 894-1698, fax: (404) 894-1445, http://www.gcatt.gatech.edu/light

Know Thy Enemy

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em-then beat 'em

Do you see your competitors simply as your worst rivals? Did you know they may actually be your best source for ideas?

Part of starting a business includes studying the competition--if they're doing something that's working, look for a way to do the same thing, or better, in your own business.

That's what Amy Ratekin, 30, did when she started Little Elf, an event decor, balloon sculpture and gift basket service in West Des Moines, Iowa, in 1996. She studied not just local businesses that offered similar products and services, but also balloon and gift basket companies in other states. "I wanted to learn from the best," she says. "By discovering what other businesses in the industry do, finding out what works in other parts of the country and even other parts of the world, and using those ideas in my business, I've become very successful."

For example, Ratekin copied inventory management and production techniques from retailers and adapted them to her homebased business. And, after determining that other balloon and basket services arranged their items on shelves with a combined purpose of storage and display in mind, Ratekin solved her inventory storage issue the same way. Her facility uses a shelving system that allows all items to be easily seen and reached, letting her rotate stock efficiently.

Next, she visited two local balloon companies and examined the custom-built workstations they used to assemble their baskets and bouquets, then reproduced the design in her own shop, having her husband complete the construction at a substantially lower cost.

Studying competitors that were faltering also taught her what not to do. "I learned I needed to stay on the cutting edge of the balloon industry," she says. She attends seminars and conventions, reads trade publications, and networks to avoid stagnancy.

And Ratekin's examination of businesses outside her area showed her that local stores had been lax in educating the public. Ratekin realized she could gain an edge simply by showing people the many creative ways they could use her service. "People don't know what's available," she says. "By teaching them, you increase your business."

Fast Track

Name and age: Rick Pia, 37

Company name and description: Pic Stik Inc., a Cumming, Georgia, manufacturer of guitar pick holders

Starting Point: 1998 with $6,000 in personal savings

Sales Projections: $60,000 for 1999; $200,000 for 2000

Born of necessity: A lifelong guitar player, Pia had always wanted a tool that would keep picks easily accessible while he was playing. But no such product existed, so he finally invented the Pic Stik, a molded polycarbonate pick holder that clips to a guitar strap. Since inventing his Pic Stik and creating his prototype in 1998, Pia's product has infiltrated music stores and catalogs nationwide. His is a virtual company--the only employee is Pia himself and he works from his basement; outsourcing all the manufacturing of his Pic Stiks.

When opportunity knocks: Pia planned to convince MARS The Musician's Planet, a music superstore chain, to stock Pic Stiks. At a chance meeting with MARS' founder and president Mark Begelman, Pia offered Begelman a Pic Stik as a gift. He was so impressed, Pia had a purchase order the next day.

It's better to give: With a limited advertising budget, Pia takes advantage of every chance for free media exposure. He gives away Pic Stiks to local radio personalities, musicians and other celebrities who like the product and can provide publicity.

'Tis the season: Retailing at $6.99 to $7.99, Pic Stiks are an affordable gift. Pia is anticipating substantial holiday sales. He explains, "I'm expecting this to be the stocking stuffer of the year."

Of Course!

What will be the best path to financial success in the 21st century? Entrepreneurship, predicts one survey of affluent Americans:

Start a business - 49%

Go into professions like law or medicine - 20%

Work for a large corporation - 14%

Join a small company - 13%

Contact Sources

Little Elf, (515) 225-3439

Oklahoma Small Business Development Center, (405) 232-1968, surbach@osbdc.org

Pic Stik Inc., (770) 281-4595, http://www.picstik.com