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 www.sba.gov/sbdc.
"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."
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.
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.
More Help Is on the Way
6. Help for Women
If you feel it's a man's world out there, there's help for you. Springboard Enterprises, for instance, is an organization that coaches women entrepreneurs and puts them before investors.
For inspiration and advice, look to the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO). This 8,000-member organization has dues, but most chapters allow you to attend three meetings before requiring you to join, says Suzanne Pease, NAWBO's president-elect.
7. Technology Centers
The Oklahoma Technology Commercialization Center (OTCC) in Oklahoma City is on a mission to help create technology companies. "There are similar organizations across the country," says Bill Grissom, OTCC's director of operations and finance. "We're all similar in that we're helping entrepreneurs make an economic impact." Most such centers exist to help technological start-ups, admits Grissom, because that's where the money is.
Some organizations are free, and some charge a "nominal fee," says Grissom, who says OTCC asks for $750 "just to make sure [entrepreneurs are] serious." The money goes directly to a market research firm to look at the entrepreneur's product or service. "And then all the other services we provide [are] free," says Grissom, whose organization helps start-ups test technologies, develop marketing plans and hunt for venture capital.
8. Ethnic Help
Whether you're Native American, African American or Asian American, you likely have a group of peers that wants to help you. The Oregon Native American Business and Entrepreneurial Network, for instance, offers classes for $10 to $100 to Native Americans in Idaho, Northern California, Oregon and Washington.
Also check out the Minority Business Development Agency, a federal agency that's available to numerous minority groups.
9. Business Community Centers
Your local business center is another place to turn to. They're not everywhere, but many states and towns have them. It's worth going to a search engine and typing in "business community center" or simply "business" and the name of your town or state. Look at it this way: If nothing else, by the time you've gone to everybody looking for free help, everybody's going to know you.
10. Friends and Family
After all, they do count, and they do care about you and your new business. You can turn a mass-mailing project into an assembly line of helpful parents, cousins and friends, and treat everybody to pizza. If you have a friend or relative who owns a business, you can barter services. Or just ask for help without them expecting anything but your gratitude. If they're last on your list, they really should be first.
Geoff Williams is a full-time freelance journalist in Loveland, Ohio, and a frequent contributor to Entrepreneur.