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Cool Aid

Don't go the startup route alone. Help is right around the corner--and it's free.

Free. The word feels like a fantasy, or maybe a sick joke. After all, you can't make a move without spending money. Walk 10 feet, and you're 10 steps closer to buying new shoes.

If you're starting your own business, the word "free" seems like an even more distant dream. Every potential expense seems magnified because your startup funds are probably pretty skimpy. If part of your business plan is to check vending machines for uncollected coins in the change slot, you've come to the right place.

In these pages, "free" actually means something. Here are 10 places to find aid for your business for free or next to nothing.

1. Chamber of Commerce

You don't have to be a member to get free help at your local chamber of commerce. Just ask Buddy Clark, executive director of the chamber of commerce in Camden, South Carolina.

"I'm talking to a young man now who wants demographics of the community so he can locate customers," says Clark. "I'm prepared to give him a leg up on starting his business."

Wow, and for free?

Clark says not to be too impressed. The data comes from the U.S. Census Web site. "But I'll tell him about all the different neighborhoods," Clark says, "and explain what the numbers don't tell."

If you need free, immediate advice, go to your chamber. "A lot of the people who come in here don't know where to begin," says Clark. "They just know they want to start a business." The Chamber of Commerce Association can provide more information.

2. Small Business Development Centers

Lars Peterson wants to help you, and it won't cost a dime. He's the interim director for the Iowa Small Business Development Center (SBDC). Of course, if you don't live in Iowa, Lars can't help. But someone at an SBDC near you can. They're everywhere, and it's a win-win-win situation for the center, the region and you.

The Iowa center's last impact study showed its clients have higher sales and employment growth rates than the average Iowa business. Go to an SBDC for help with business planning, cash-flow projections or whatever you need to know about starting a business. Locate an SBDC by going to

"Many of [our center directors and business counselors] have been business owners," says Peterson, "and they enjoy [helping] other entrepreneurs avoid the traps they may have fallen into."

3. The SBA

The SBA's goal is to help small businesses become big. "When you call this office, the first thing we'll do is send you our start-up information package [with] the names, addresses and phone numbers of just about anybody you're going to need to know," says Ron Carlson, branch manager of the Cincinnati SBA office.

Then Carlson would probably direct you to the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE), which is just what it sounds like--veteran businesspeople volunteering to help. Or he might send you to an SBDC. But once you move on, don't forget your SBA. "Beyond startup, other things are available," says Carlson. "We'll help show people how to bid on federal contracts and how to find those contracts. And it's all free of charge."

4. Universities

These days, it's almost a given. Your nearest university probably has an entrepreneurial center, and not just for the students. For instance, the Mason Enterprise Center at George Mason University in Washington, DC, provides plenty of free help: one-on-one counseling, seminars, and legal and financial advice.

And many universities have Small Business Institutes (SBIs), where professors choose businesses to help teach their students. Typically, you should have a business and a few customers first, but if you have a company that's even a few months old with a genuine need, you could have some free help coming your way. Graduate students or bright seniors will be your consultants. If they do a good job, they get an A, and you profit.

5. Incubators

OK, incubators usually aren't free, but they belong in this story because plenty of free help is available in them: receptionists, training facilities, high-speed networks. Every incubator is different, but they all provide tools and resources if your business will bring dollars into the community and hire from the area.

Many incubators are located on university campuses. The aforementioned George Mason University has two. But you're not limited to colleges. Type your city's name and "incubator" in a search engine, or contact the National Business Incubator Association.

From the Beginning
Perry DiGirolamo, 38, was just a salesman with a dream when he approached the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center, a creation of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. DiGirolamo walked in with hardly a business plan. ("I thought I had one," he now laughs.) Two years later, he and business partner Stuart Bander, 39, own Chocolateer Confections, with about $250,000 in annual sales. Their treats, including homemade truffles and Italian ice cream, are so mouthwatering, they've been featured in The Wall Street Journal and on the BBC.

But it would've been impossible without the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center, which helped the partners write a business plan and land a $100,000 SBA loan. Eventually, they became members of the chamber, but the center would have helped them regardless, DiGirolamo says. He explains, "It's in part state-funded, so in that sense, we were already paying for it."

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Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.

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This article was originally published in the February 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur's StartUps with the headline: Cool Aid.

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