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The Times
  • Volunteer counselors help entrepreneurs perfect dreams

  • SCORE Association is an organization offering free one-on-one business counseling and advice to entrepreneurs. The nonprofit has about 400 offices nationwide manned by more than 11,000 working and retired business professionals and corporate executives who serve as volunteers.

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  • SCORE Association is an organization offering free one-on-one business counseling and advice to entrepreneurs.
    The nonprofit has about 400 offices nationwide manned by more than 11,000 working and retired business professionals and corporate executives who serve as volunteers. Counselors are dedicated to helping the small business community through no-fee mentoring and inexpensive educational workshops.
    The group works in cooperation with the U.S. Small Business Administration and local chambers of commerce to assist owners looking to start a venture, expand or enter new markets.
    Volunteers can address questions on feasibility analysis, marketing, sales, cash-flow analysis, cost control, accessing information sources and organization and tax structure. They help newbies through each phase: generating and assessing ideas, number crunching, raising capital and managing operations.
    Seminars include series on accounting, guidelines, recordkeeping, business insurance, legal issues, creating a business structure, writing a business plan and financing a business. SCORE also has a referral service to provide clients with experts in small-business auditing, law, marketing, finance and other disciplines.
    Larry Lakin, branch chairman for Cook County, Ill., considers his counselors to be sounding boards for aspiring business owners.
    “Sometimes you fall in love with your idea, and you can’t see the forest for the trees, so it’s hard to be objective about your prospects,” said Lakin, a retired chief financial officer who has worked with Toys ‘R’ Us, Frank’s Nursery and cosmetic companies. “We try to refocus you so you’re realistically thinking about the details: your target customer base, how much revenue you can expect and where your storefront location should be.”
    How it works
    According to Jay Khatau, chairman of SCORE’s Fox Valley Chapter, which caters to the western suburbs of Illinois, the organization’s value is in the wide breadth of expertise at its fingertips.
    “With one call, we can connect you to people who know customer service, management, retail sales, merchandising, warehousing, transportation, IT, Internet sales, banking, inventory, logistics, quality insurance, medical claims — you name it,” he said. “We have resources in any imaginable part of the industry, and these people can get you on the right track. We’re not academics dealing in abstractions, so that lends credibility to the advice we give.”
    New business owners most commonly request tips on how to attract customers and increase sales, said Lakin, who sold his fledgling startup fragrance company. The next most prevalent issue SCORE counselors discuss is dealing with a less-than-ideal marketing budget by brainstorming out-of-the-box alternatives.
    He also said clients often need the group’s help managing cash flow in the aftermath of poor planning and learning how to let go and delegate responsibility to employees once the business blossoms and begins to grow.
    Khatau often has 10 to 15 sessions with a single entrepreneur at various planning and re-evaluation stages.
    Page 2 of 2 - SCORE clients include Vermont Teddy Bear Company, Jelly Belly Candy, Vera Bradley Designs and Little Scoops, a ’50s-style children’s birthday party business named a hot new franchise by Entrepreneur magazine.
    Testimonial reveals success
    An impromptu pitstop at Cold Stone Creamery came with a $24 pricetag for Robin and Alecia Williams.
    So the next time a craving hit, Robin Williams pulled out his ice cream machine and made a delectable strawberry shortcake creation with strawberries, chocolate, caramel and whipped cream. And the entrepreneurial seed was planted.
    The Bolingbrook, Ill., residents decided to open their own dessert cafe serving gelato, smoothies, gourmet coffees and pastries.
    “I began doing some market research and discovered that people traveling to Europe are seeing the sidewalk cafes and are bringing the trend back to the U.S.,” said Robin Williams, who attended the Joseph Center for Business Development in Forest Park, Ill. “So we decided to take the plunge with a start-up.”
    The couple already has identified the shop’s likely customers, sized up competition, tackled the business plan and designed the logo. They’re in the first stages of configuring the layout of the store, which they hope to have up and running by June.
    But that didn’t stop them from seeking the advice of SCORE counselors after stumbling across the group while searching online for entrepreneurial tutorials.
    “My wife told me to call them up and make an appointment. The organization has given us a ton of insight and a wealth of information,” Williams said. “We dropped everything in Jay’s lap and pretty much said ‘Here’s what we have. Here’s the direction we’re going in. What do you think about this?’ And he tweaked away.”
    Khatau gave the Williamses names of his own trusted franchise lawyers and loan officers as well as some other contacts.
    “It’s incredibly helpful to talk to people who have been in the thick of it before,” Williams said. “To have someone look at our situation and say ‘What are you doing talking to three banks when you need to talk to 10?’ or ‘You’re 2 feet from passing go,’ is invaluable.”
    For more information, call 1-800-634-0245 or visit www.score.org.

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