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Guiding Light

Feeling a little lost at the helm of your business? Don't worry: A peer group can help you find your way out of the darkness.

It is a Thursday morning, and normally, Cynthia Malcom would be tending to her business. But today, she's sitting in a classroom, listening to a lecture with a handful of other adults.

Actually, she is tending to her business. It just doesn't look like it at first glance. Malcom is attending BYOB, and no, it's not what you think. This is Build Your Own Business, a 10-week program for anybody who wants to run a company. Situated in a spacious but almost barren room on the second floor of the Cincinnati Business Incubator, BYOB targets residents in underserved, urban neighborhoods. Malcom and her classmates are paying $50 for 20 hours of instruction from a seasoned entrepreneur; after the class is over, they can receive ongoing free services, like financial counseling and tax preparation from BYOB's nonprofit organization, Smart Money Community Services in Cincinnati.

But Malcom has already mastered one important lesson in starting a business, one that entrepreneurs new to the scene would do well to learn: You are not alone. No matter how bleak things might seem, there are always people willing to aid and comfort a struggling entrepreneur.

Malcom, who's in her 30s, runs the Hand Candy Mind and Body Escape in Cheviot, an urban neighborhood in Cincinnati. She has one part-time employee and more than 100 regular customers. Hers isn't exactly a multimillion-dollar business, but she wants it to be. She's come a long way since launching her salon with little more than $5,000 after working several years at a casino. Having dreamed of being an entrepreneur since she was 12 years old, Malcom opened her business in 2000, and she hopes to open her second store within a couple of years. But to do that, a little advice and inspiration wouldn't hurt. "I'm the owner, manager, secretary and janitor. You get so busy, you forget the basics," explains Malcom, who hopes the education will help fill some gaps in her knowledge.

Coming to BYOB was a smart decision. As any entrepreneur knows, if you have a problem, you fix it. You might be flying solo, but there are always air traffic controllers in the tower, ready to talk to you, ready to help. Going it completely alone is unnecessary-maybe even foolish. And Malcom would rather soar than crash.

Help for Everybody
Across the Ohio River from Malcom is Nicole Christian, the vice president of development for the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. "What we do is point people in the right direction," says Christian, espousing a philosophy of chambers of commerce nationwide.

Even if you have only the foggiest notion of what your business is going to be, Christian-or somebody like her-can help. She directs people with a business idea to the nearest Small Business Development Center, which helps novice entrepreneurs formulate blueprints for their businesses. And SBDCs are everywhere. Even if you live in American Samoa, you're in luck.

If you have at least a vague idea of what your business plan is, chamber executives like Christian can make finding financing and deciding on a business location less overwhelming. As you're writing that business plan, "we have a business panel review," Christian says. "It's a revolving panel of about 10 people, and they can ask questions that will help you realize if there are holes in your plan."

And, of course, a chamber of commerce or an SBDC can steer you to other organizations such as SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives). Located nationwide, these retired executives want to help budding young entrepreneurs; the SCORE Web site even offers free e-mail counseling. You can seek these groups on your own, of course, but the chamber of commerce and SBDCs are often already working with groups like SCORE and may introduce you to their local contacts a little faster.

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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 August 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Guiding Light.

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