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Help for Business Owners

Make use of these free and low-cost resources designed to help you start and grow your business.

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The most successful business owners I've profiled through the years are the ones who set their egos aside and ask for help. This year, resolve to take advantage of all the free and low-cost resources available to help you solve your business problems. Here is a quick guide to getting help from Uncle Sam or from private organizations and corporations dedicated to small-business success.

Government Resources

The SBA, despite budget cuts, continues to offer a variety of affordable programs and resources, ranging from free one-on-one counseling from a veteran business owner to organizing trade missions abroad. The SBA's extensive Web site is the best place to find all the help you need. It's easy to navigate and features lots of drop-down menus so you can point and click your way to specific help available in your area or online. The SBA operates an extensive network of Business Information Centers, Small Business Development Centers, Export Assistance Centers, Women's Business Development Centers and more. There are programs to help you bid on government contracts, apply for SBA-guaranteed loans, export your products or seek investment capital. Your tax dollars are funding all these SBA programs, so why not take advantage of them? The SBA's Web site also has dozens of links to outside resources, including news sites, small-business publications and organizations.

Many people think the 13,000 SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives) counselors are there just to help start-ups, but SCORE counselors are happy to help veteran business owners find solutions to their toughest business problems. Best of all, SCORE will do its best to find a counselor with expertise in your industry.

Dozens of SCORE counselors provided on-site help at the nine Back on Track America small-business conferences we produced around the country. Many attendees scheduled follow-up meetings with SCORE counselors after the seminars. To find a SCORE counselor online or to meet with one in person, visit www.score.org.

Peer Support Groups

If you don't belong to a peer support group, this may be the year to join one. Speaking candidly with other noncompetitive business owners can often help you avoid making the same mistakes they did.

TEC, The Executive Committee, has been supporting small-company CEOs since 1957. There are 7,000 TEC members globally and TEC chapters operating in most major cities. TEC members meet monthly to confidentially discuss business challenges and provide advice and insights to each other. For more information on joining TEC, visit www.teconline.com or call (877) 274-2367.

The Women Presidents' Organization (WPO) has 23 chapters in 20 cities around the United States. Founded by Marsha Firestone, the WPO provides peer support and networking for women whose businesses gross at least $2 million annually from manufacturing or $1 million from services. The group, which accepts new members by invitation only, has a new member-at-large program for women who live in a city without a chapter or prefer not to join one. WPO's annual conference is scheduled for Feb. 28 to March 1, 2002, in New York City. For membership information visit www.womenpresidentsorg.com.

The National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) has dozens of chapters operating around the country. NAWBO chapter meetings provide networking opportunities, guest speakers and corporate connections. There are regional and national conferences as well. To learn more about NAWBO membership, visit www.nawbo.org.

If you are unhappy with the way Congress treats small-business owners, stop complaining and join an organization that is looking out for your best interests. National Small Business United lobbies elected officials on behalf of small-business owners and hosts an annual conference to set legislative priorities. NSBU publishes newsletters and a magazine for its members.

The Small Business Survival Committee (SBSC) is also involved in political action on behalf of business owners. The SBSC is lobbying lawmakers to support tax cuts for business owners and pushing for regulatory reform. According to a report by the SBA's Office of Advocacy, business owners with 20 or fewer employees spend $6,975 per employee per year to meet federal regulations. That's 61 percent higher than companies with 20 to 499 employees. Visit www.sbsc.org for details and to keep up with legislative issues.

Help From Corporations

Many corporations are reaching out to small-business owners with new products and services. American Express recently launched OPEN: The Small Business Network, based on feedback solicited from its cardholders, according to Kerry Hatch, executive vice president and general manager of OPEN. Hatch said AmEx recently added a flexible payment option to its corporate card and negotiated discounts on Hilton Hotels, Dell computers and FedEx shipments.

"We added a whole new set of partners--Dun & Bradstreet, Paytrust and others," said Hatch. "We overhauled the whole small-business Web site and added a financial "dashboard" which lets you track all your AmEx accounts." The new site also provides a place for business owners to post questions and ask for help from other business owners.

MasterCard International also has an extensive small-business Web site providing tools, products, advice and services for small-business owners. MasterCard offers discounts on computers and other office equipment to business card holders. To order a free copy of the "Small Business Financial Resource Guide," visit www.mastercard.com/business/smallbiz.

Be sure to check out www.sbtv.com, which provides free access to interviews, profiles, articles and transcripts of interest to small-business owners. If you've missed one of my columns, past columns are posted in the Resources Area under "Jane's Columns."

Jane Applegate is a syndicated columnist and the author of 201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business. For a free copy of her "Business Owner's Check Up," send your name and address to Check Up, P.O. Box 768, Pelham NY 10803 or e-mail it to info@sbtv.com. Sarah Prior contributed to this report.