When you're first starting a business, the SBA can be an invaluable resource for start-up information and assistance. But with both a Web site and physical locations in the form of Small Business Development Centers and local SBA offices to choose from, how do you know whether to hop online or hop in your car?
After spending some time on both the SBA Web site and in a local SBDC, I found the best method is to do both. I recently spent a few hours exploring the site, finding the standard bank listings, SBA programs, links to helpful Web sites and the like. The Online Library, which lets you read the materials online or print them, is of course accessible 24 hours a day, while the resource center limits you to its hours of operation. Information on the site is also updated more regularly than the printed materials and is supplemented with links to a variety of other sites.
At a center, though, you also get the assistance of a trained SBA employee who will be able to steer you in the right direction, while on the site you might be reading yourself into a corner. Perhaps the most valuable part of an in-person visit to an SBA office is the opportunity to meet with a SCORE counselor. The office I visited in Santa Ana, California, is typically booked two to three weeks in advance, and there are usually three volunteer counselors on staff. When you call to make an appointment, the office manager ensures you're paired with someone who actually has expertise in the field you need help with. (SCORE counselors go through a six-month screening process to ensure they have the adequate skills and experience necessary to provide help to entrepreneurs.) The one-hour sessions are free, and entrepreneurs can return as many times as they want. You can also receive free cyber-counseling, so you'll be able to e-mail questions to an advisor.
Another resource on the site is the SBA Classroom, where you can read articles, research your industry and even take online courses. The Web and multi-episode video courses cover all aspects of business, from marketing to finance, and the majority of them are free. You can also use the SBA's online Calendar of Events to locate local seminars (costing $20 to $40) hosted by SBDCs and SCORE.
The amount of information online truly is overwhelming, so I would recommend you do your initial research online, take notes, then head to your local SBDC for some direction. It'll make your online search more efficient.