Free help. When it's offered by anyone, it's an enticing offer, but it's not always the best strategy a business can take, especially if the offer comes from a friend or relative who's well meaning but doesn't have much to present in the way of experience. But there's one place that every entrepreneur--from the newbie with a retail store to the established manufacturing veteran--should consider going for free assistance: your local university or community college.
Almost every reputable business school has an entrepreneurship program these days, and one of the most practical ways for a student to get some useful training is to make contact with the real world. That would be you. The reason this partnership works so well is that entrepreneurs, running around like madmen trying to keep everything together, often have something of a brain drain in their company. Universities, of course, are filled to the brim with ideas and innovative thinkers.
Of course, you may be leery at first to entrust any part of your startup or established company to young people not yet out of college, but these are energetic, not-yet-jaded young adults with the guidance of the best academic minds in the country, who only want to learn something, further their own career ambitions--and help you in the process. It's also likely that the areas in which you need help, such as market research, web design or customer surveys, have changed since your own college days. And if you never studied business or entrepreneurship to begin with, what do you have to lose? It's all the more reason to align yourself with a university and soak in what you can.
With all of this in mind, we compiled a list of several universities around the country who offer assistance to business owners. Odds are, these schools won't be near you, but it should give you an idea of what kind of help is out there and whether you'd make a likely match for some lucky entrepreneurship student or class.
The College: Saint Louis University, in St. Louis, Missouri
The Business School: Jefferson-Smurfit Center for Entrepreneurial Studies
The "What's in It for Me" factor: University students taking a business planning class will help local startup businesses draw up their business plans. Kevin Schulte, director of the center, says, "Entrepreneurs or inventors do a one- to two-page write-up of their business idea or venture for consideration. A faculty member reviews the various candidates for appropriateness and distributes the ideas and ventures to the students for their review. Then, with the guidance of faculty, the student or students select which business idea or venture to work on."
FYI 101: The students actually write the business plans just once a year, in December and early January. One to two students are assigned to work with each company in two different classes, the "Business Plan Course" in the undergraduate level and the "Advanced Business Planning Course" for the graduate level.
The College: Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa
The "What's in It for Me" factor: There's a business incubator here that's unlike most incubators found on college campuses. College-based incubators generally offer cheap rent to companies that have a new but fledgling business. As business administration professor Scott Herriott explains, "Our [incubator] at M.U.M. is for 'idea stage' entrepreneurs." You don't have to have a business yet--just an idea for one--and the rent is deferred for six months, at the university's risk. If the entrepreneur creates a successful business, the rent is paid back over time. If the business flops, the entrepreneur owes nothing and can walk away without paying a cent. Herriott observes, "That puts the pressure on the university to help the entrepreneurs succeed."
FYI 101: During the six months in which rent's deferred, entrepreneurs are given an office cubicle in the university's library building with high-speed internet access and library privileges, as well as opportunities to present their business ideas to business students at the undergraduate and graduate levels and either get advice from them or have students research a concept for them.
The College: University of Puget Sound, in Tacoma, Washington
The Business School: The School of Business and Leadership
The "What's in It for Me" factor: As part of their coursework, business students have to analyze and provide counsel to local businesses. They cover everything from market research to customer service surveys. If you need ideas for an advertising campaign, are struggling to find a manufacturer for a prototype--or to develop the prototype itself--or need to come up with a way to drive more traffic to your website, these students can likely do it. Some students even have extensive knowledge of strategic issues that face small businesses working in the international community. "It's really individualized. I don't think there's anything they wouldn't do," says Melissa Rohlfs, manager of media relations at the university.
FYI 101: The business school has developed quite a local reputation, with students helping out such local businesses as Lakewood's House of Donuts, the Mandolin Caf� and Lincoln Hardware and businesses have been flocking to get help from its students in greater numbers every year. In fact, the university's reputation has grown so much in the past 11 years that recently, entire business districts started asking for their help in devising ways to bring in more customer traffic.
The College: University of Alabama at Birmingham
The Business School: The University of Alabama School of Business
The "What's in It for Me" factor: Every Friday, the school of business, which houses an SBA-sponsored Small Business Development Center, offers startup classes for would-be entrepreneurs. They also offer free, one-on-one business counseling for all businesses, no matter how big or small. And one of the professors, Joe Primm, teaches a class, "Small Business Research and Consulting," in which one of the main focuses is having students try to solve the problems of a small business. "We offer the class usually three times per year-[in the] fall, spring and summer terms--to seniors in the business school who've completed their marketing, finance and accounting prerequisites," says Primm. "Business owners are normally selected either through personal contacts I make at Chamber of Commerce luncheons or referrals from professionals." The program's so popular, there's a waiting list of entrepreneurs who want in on the action.
FYI 101: The entrepreneur selected for Primm's class is required to commit to working with the students. Generally, aside from occasional phone calls and e-mails, there are just four in-person meetings: one to identify the project, two more to follow up on progress and a final meeting at which the entrepreneur receives the finished report.
The College: University of Louisville in Kentucky
The Business School: University of Louisville's College of Business and Public Administration
The "What's in It for Me" factor: There's a Small Business Institute in the business school that's run by Professor Bruce Kemelgor. Every year, Kemelgor links approximately 30 local businesses with teams of seniors or MBA students to help the companies solve their most pressing problems. The teams have tackled everything from market analysis and business plan writing to production flow and human resources issues.
FYI 101: The companies helped are almost always small, the service is free, and this isn't a case of getting what you paid for--the program has won numerous business awards.
The College: Baylor University, in Waco, Texas
The Business School: John F. Baugh Center for Entrepreneurship
The "What's in It for Me" factor: The school is home to the FastTrac program, which is actually a national program that's currently in universities and small-business centers in 31 states. In the Baylor program, regional entrepreneurs are paired with entrepreneurship majors who act as consultants to the companies for a nine- to 12-week period. During this time, the students will work on a specific project you've been clamoring to get done, such as creating and implementing marketing surveys, developing web designs or analyzing software.
FYI 101: For your protection, students--and you may get a small team of them working for you--are required to sign confidentiality agreements and letters of intent to protect your products and intellectual properties. The program frequently has more interested students than prospective businesses, so if you're in the area and intrigued by the idea of free help, don't be shy--call them up.
The College: Marist College, in Poughkeepsie, New York
The Business School: School of Management
The "What's in It for Me" factor: The school has a program called GET: Gateway to Entrepreneurial Tomorrows. It's funded by a grant and is aimed at small, minority businesses in inner cities of New York's Mid-Hudson Valley. GET has helped delis, furniture retailers, small cell phone stores, and mortgage origination businesses get started and get growing. The service--which is bilingual--is free and offers entrepreneurs the resources they need to start or maintain a business.
FYI 101: What you're getting is everything from one-on-one consultations to referrals, seminars and a mentorship program that'll hook you up with business veterans. If your business shows a lot of promise, they may even hook you up with a microloan.
More Ways to Become Head of the Class
If you do some digging and learn that you don't have a university or college in your area that offers an entrepreneurship program, there are still innumerable ways to take advantage of your local college's resources. Here are a few strategies you might want to employ:
- Take a business course, either through the college's regular schedule of classes or through their extension program.
- Inspire your local business college to begin an entrepreneurship program: Offer your business up as a proverbial guinea pig to any professor or class that might want to use you or your business as a case study for a project.
- Hire a college intern. If you go through the right channels at the college, they may be able to work for free, provided you're able to offer the type of work that the university feels is educational and qualifies for class credit.
- Use the college's extensive library of resources for research. Universities generally have larger collections than most, smaller public libraries--you may be able to find information on anything from how to license your new product to the results of the latest market research in your industry.
- Use a Small Business Development Center (SBDC) on campus. With more than 1,000 locations throughout the United States and its territories--most of which are located on college campuses, the SBDCs offer a wide variety of information and guidance to individuals and small businesses. If you need help developing any aspect of your business, the SBDC counselors can offer assistance with market research, cash-flow projections and more. And in most cases, the help is free.
- Consult with professors. If you have some spare income, you might want to consider hiring a business professor to help you with a knotty problem or project.
- Enter a college-based business plan contest for area entrepreneurs.
- Get help from members of an on-campus entrepreneurial organization or business club. If you're enrolled in a class, you can actually join the organization yourself.
Geoff Williams is a freelance journalist in Loveland, Ohio, and a proud alumnus of Indiana University.
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.