When Ada Diaz Kirby started CommTech International Inc. in Denver in 1994, she thought her 24-year career at telephone company US West qualified her to operate a high-tech training firm. But within days of starting the business, Kirby, 48, was mired in myriad problems she had never imagined. For instance, after winning a $1 million training contract, she quickly had to hire more than 20 employees. Then she immediately had to secure financing for new computer workstations for those employees--workstations costing about $12,000 each.
"I thought I had figured it all out," Kirby recalls. "I had a mom-and-apple-pie business plan, but it wasn't realistic and wouldn't have worked."
With the business's demise likely, Kirby spent $100 to enroll in Premier Fast Trac's "Recognizing Opportunities and Defining a Venture" course. Between 6 and 10 every Monday night for six months, Kirby learned how to operate a business. The lessons she learned about hiring, contracting, marketing, franchising, financing and more saved her company, which now generates $1.2 million in annual revenues, employs 16 people and is expanding to provide international training.
Kirby and others like her are increasingly turning to the growing number of workshops, seminars and courses that target start-up entrepreneurs. Participating in such entrepreneurial training programs before start-up can greatly improve your chances of success, says Sandy Weinberg, a professor and chairman of the Institute of Entrepreneurship at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The Institute's four-semester program teaches groups of 25 fledgling entrepreneurs how to start and succeed in their businesses.
"[Attending an educational] program forces people to think about what they want to do and how to go about it in clear detail," Weinberg explains. As a result, problems are worked out before money is spent and businesses are opened, rather than after it's too late.
Participants in training programs walk away with a lot more than a business plan, Weinberg notes. For the price of enrollment, new entrepreneurs obtain credibility when they approach bankers, valuable contacts in the business community, and the chance to network with others trying to strike out on their own.
"It's not who you know, but who knows you and what you do," says Lucy Rosen, president of The Business Development Group in Oceanside, New York, which has offered entrepreneurship seminars for 15 years. Priced at about $25, the seminars--held nationwide--give start-up owners a chance to interact with those who have overcome the main issues facing entrepreneurs, from lack of capital to bad service.
With a keen eye on the bottom line and the time constraints participants face, entrepreneurial training programs are becoming more innovative in their approaches to their customers. "Business owners don't have time to go to college," contends Dawn AnJolais, founder and president of Business Owners University, a Portland, Oregon, company that provides entrepreneurship training via telephone and the Internet.
Business Owners University's telephone classes, led by successful entrepreneurs, cost from $450 to $1,100 and range from a four-week course, which explains the steps to opening a business, to an eight-week course, which offers an in-depth approach to starting and expanding a business. For several hours each week, entrepreneurs take part in discussions designed to help them assist each other.
Big Companies Want You
As small business in general gains national attention, Fortune 500 corporations are seeking a foothold in this fast-growing market. PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP has an Entrepreneurial Advisory Services/ Middle Market Group that holds seminars for entrepreneurs nationwide. "[Entrepreneurs have] many needs, and we want to position ourselves to help them find answers," says Don Dailey, regional partner in charge of the group. "If we can help them, they might think of us [later on] when they need help."
Using instructors called "thought leaders," PricewaterhouseCoopers holds breakfast meetings that focus on issues of importance to business owners. Often held in conjunction with local business groups at no cost to attendees, the sessions are designed to be interactive. "We serve as facilitators to bring business owners together to learn from each other," Dailey explains.
Other professional service firms are joining the training trend, too. Follmer Rudzewicz & Co., a Detroit accounting firm, offers an Organizational Development and Training Consulting service to owners of small businesses, providing advice from successful entrepreneurs for free or for as little as $45 per hour, compared to the usual $300 per hour. "Most people are either good salespeople or have a good [business idea]," says David B. Harrell, a principal in the firm and head of the program, "but they don't have both, and that's what gets them into trouble."
Beyond practical matters, entrepreneurship courses offer intangible benefits as well. "Isolation is a big problem for people starting a business," says Judith Cone, program director of the Center for Entepreneurial Leadership at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which sponsors the Premier Fast Trac programs in 46 states. "Entrepreneurial training helps eliminate that feeling of isolation. [Participants] see they are part of a process that can work."
Making sure your business will work before you start is key to success. Once the doors open, there isn't much time to think about the essential nuts and bolts of running a business. Taxes, marketing, finding employees--these aren't the things you think of when you visualize being your own boss, but they're essential parts of being a successful business owner.
Here's how to contact the entrepreneurial education programs featured in this article:
- The Business Development Group: (516) 692-9100
- Business Owners University: (503) 452-1985
- Institute of Entrepreneurship at Muhlenberg College: (610) 821-3285
- Organizational Development and Training Consulting, Follmer Rudzewicz & Co.: (810) 254-1040
- Premier Fast Trac: (800) 689-1740
- PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP Entrepreneurial Advisory Services/ Middle Market Group: (313) 446-7133
The skyrocketing number of entrepreneurial education programs is good news for entrepreneurs--but with so many options, choosing the right seminar or class can be difficult. To find the perfect match, begin by carefully assessing yourself. What skills and expertise do you lack? How much time and money can you afford to invest in a training program? When and where do you want to take a class?
Listing your entrepreneurial strengths and weaknesses is a good starting point, one that can be made even more valuable if you ask friends, business colleagues and family members to make a similar list about you. The results can be hard to swallow, but they'll give you an objective list of the areas you need to improve.
Next, gather the names of programs from local business organizations such as your chamber of commerce and the SBA. Ask other entrepreneurs and professionals, such as your attorney and accountant, for ideas.
Look for a program that fits the way you learn. If classroom instruction bores you, you may do better in a program that emphasizes interaction with other business owners rather than lectures. Short on time? You may prefer getting information in one day-long class, or you may want to take night classes spread over several months so you're not overwhelmed with a lot of material all at once. If you're truly pressed for time or your business requires you to work odd hours, consider classes on the Internet, which are available 24 hours a day.
To narrow your list, talk to the instructors to get details about their teaching style and the material covered. Also ask for names of business owners who have taken the class, and contact them to get their opinion. (Be especially careful when investigating courses on the Internet, where all is not always what it seems.)
Torn between two programs? If all else is equal, go for the ones taught by successful entrepreneurs. These experienced leaders can offer you valuable lessons, assistance and business contacts.
Bob Graham is a freelance writer in Belcamp, Maryland, who specializes in business and real estate topics.
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