It's a jungle out there, especially for startups. Good news, though: Information, advice and assistance are available--often at no charge. Armed with the proper coordinates, you can gain quick, direct access to one-on-one counseling, step-by-step strategic guidance, legal advice, funding opportunities and more. Here's an insider's guide to four of the best startup resources:
1. SCORE : A nonprofit that provides free online and in-person mentoring via a national counseling force of 11,800 working and retired business owners and executives in nearly 400 chapters
- Trained counselors/mentors are matched to client's specific needs and business or market.
- Counseling is multidimensional--motivational as well as practical, informational and strategic.
- Additional support is available in the form of online learning, how-to articles, business templates, low-cost workshops and an extensive resource library.
- Visit the SCORE website regularly: This year, SCORE began posting monthly "Small Business Smart Start Tools," with resources for assessing your business, organizing your workplace and planning for success. Tips for January included an online workshop to develop a quick-start business plan, and two startup quizzes to help size up the competition and the earning potential of a business idea.
- SCORE counselors are available to assist in "as many follow-up appointments as necessary," says Martin Lehman, a SCORE counselor. "We're here to help."
- A subsite is dedicated to helping women entrepreneurs.
2. Small Business Development Centers : An expansive network of some 1,100 branch offices, delivering counseling, training and technical assistance in all aspects of small-business management. "Every startup needs three things," says Kristin Johnson, director of the Northern California SBDC network. "A lawyer, an accountant and an SBDC advisor."
- It's all here: help with financials, marketing, production, organization, engineering and technical problems, and feasibility studies.
- Confidential one-on-one counseling is a core strength.
- Workshops for startups run regularly at local SBDCs, and most are free. "We recommend every client [attend] one before seeking one-on-one counseling," says Kelly Manning, state director of the Colorado SBDC network.
- All centers have an on-site resource library.
- Check with the SBDC in your area about specialized programs, including industry-specific training and events for nascent entrepreneurs.
- Many SBDCs publish a region-specific business resource guide every year or two. If your local center publishes one, it's worth checking out, says Manning.
- Don't wait to reach out to an SBDC, Johnson urges. "It's never too early to start working with someone on your idea."
- Make an appointment for a counseling session, and come prepared with a list of questions. Even better, come with a rough business plan.
- Need multiple counseling sessions to sort things out? Never a problem--and never a charge.
- Many SBDCs are housed at academic institutions, so startups can tap grad student research groups for custom-ized--and free--market research. Ask an SBDC advisor how it works. "It's less
utilized than it should be," Johnson notes.
- Ready to start your quest for funding? Visit an SBDC advisor for help refining your business plan and financials first.
3. SBA : Via the web and district offices, the SBA offers an array of tools and resources to help new and aspiring business owners succeed.
- There are too many resources to list them all, but Holly Schick of the SBA's Office of Entrepreneurial Development recommends starting with the Start-Up Assessment Tool.
- The Small Business Planner has guides on just about every aspect of startup.
- Access free, at-your-own-pace courses on topics like writing a business plan. These 30- to 45-minute courses pack an educational wallop.
- Delve into the SBA's resource library.
- If you or a spouse is or was in the military, check out Patriot Express, a new SBA initiative that provides expedited funding for startups.
- Pay a visit to an SBA district office for startup info relevant to a specific state and locality.
- Visit an SBA Women's Business Center or Office of Women's Business Ownership for free support.
- Check out one of the SBA's Minority Business Development Centers for free business consulting services and financial management advice.
- Check the SBA website frequently, advises Schick, because resources for startups are regularly updated (and usually highlighted in the "Spotlight" column on the homepage).
4. U.S. Chamber Small Business Center : This arm of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce provides comprehensive startup assistance via web-based tools and resources.
- The center's Startup Toolkit is a must, says the U.S. Chamber's Giovanni Coratolo. It runs the how-to gamut, from evaluating an idea's chances for success to accessing capital and beyond.
- A large small-business library is at your fingertips.
- Coming soon: enriched resources on the center's website, with anticipated contributions from partners SCORE, SBDCs and the FastTrac entrepreneur learning program, says Coratolo.
- Tap the "Tools" section of the center's library for various model business documents, spreadsheet templates and government forms.
- Check out the center's guidance on business exit planning. "Knowing how to exit a business will dictate how you shape that business," Coratolo says.
- Guidance on landing government contracts is especially worthwhile he says.
Active Capital(ACE-Net): For startups looking to connect directly with accredited investors and vice versa, this site lets qualified entrepreneurs post investment opportunities and access a national database of potential funding sources. Training, counseling and mentoring are also available.
FastTrac: Educational programs for aspiring entrepreneurs, funded by the Kauffman Foundation and offered nationally via 300 alliance organizations
James J. Hill Reference Library: A private, nonprofit library with publicly accessible, business-oriented publications and information. Business information specialists offer free reference assistance and fee-based research services.
National Association of Small Business Investment Companies: Representing small VC firms, the organization offers a searchable online database of members, plus a guide to obtaining SBIC financing.
National Business Incubation Association: Offers a searchable database of national and international incubators, plus links to incubation associations and tips to help entrepreneurs find the right incubator
National Venture Capital Association: This large VC trade group offers a wealth of info on the VC world, including links to state, regional and special-interest VC organizations.
David Port is a freelancer based in Denver who writes on small business, and financial and energy issues.