Travels of an Entrepreneur

8 low to no-cost business resources across NE Wisconsin every business owner should consider

Story by Lee Marie Reinsch

Is there one “weird trick” to rocket your small business into the stratosphere and blast your brilliant tech idea on to Amazon’s list of companies they must purchase?

OK, so there’s really not one. Other than having dozens of beneficent investors and lumps of gold in reserve, or being BFFs with a certain gazillionaire whose last name rhymes with lump.

All that might help. But the actual one weird trick is: Pick up the phone. And call. Anyone. It doesn’t matter whom. Help abounds.

From Score chapters in 362 American cities, including Green Bay and Appleton, to Fond du Lac’s Ignite! Business Success, which offers the combined power of 17 regional partners, several agencies up and down the Interstate 41 Corridor can help.

And the great thing is, it doesn’t matter which one you call first.

“(Most every entrepreneur) is confused about where to start,” said Ryan Kauth, director of the Small Business Development Center located at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay. “That’s a 10-year-old question. Any of those organizations employ people or have people who are volunteers who know all the resources in the area, and know if they can’t directly help that individual, they know who can.”

We rounded up a few to start with.

What:    Score chapters

Where:    Appleton and Green Bay

Web:    score.org

Contact:    920.734.7101 for Appleton, or 920.222.2167 for Green Bay

About: Formerly known as the Service Corps of Retired Executives, this free small business consulting group has been around since 1962.

Score’s volunteers include retired and active professionals from a host of occupations, including accountants, financial advisors, multigenerational business owners and CEOs.

They’ll meet with entrepreneurs to assess a business’s needs, provide mentoring, business direction and help writing business plans. And it’s all free and confidential.

What:    Entrepreneur Resource Center

Where:    Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, Green Bay

Web:    nwtc.edu/Business-Industry/Entrepreneur-Resource-Center

Phone:    920.498.7124

Contact: erc@nwtc.edu

About: Entrepreneur Resource Center, or ERC for short, helps startups and existing business owners identify what tools and direction they need to grow, according to Karen Widmar, director of small business initiatives.

Its frequent webinars at score.org cover strategic planning, human resource issues, the latest apps, obtaining financing and other topics.

“Whether they’ve been in business for one year or several years, there’s always that point in a small business owner’s or entrepreneur’s life where – all of a sudden – reality strikes and they’re like, ‘What do I do now? I’m not growing like I thought I would,’ or ‘I’m having these struggles, I’m hitting a wall. Who do I turn to?’” Widmar said.

“Everything we’re developing or have developed in the center is geared toward that, and … helping those existing small-business owners become stronger and stay in business …. and contribute to the overall health of the economy.”

The ERC is located in the Advance Business & Manufacturing Center on the campus of NWTC along with Score and the SBDC office. All agencies work together toward similar goals.

Perhaps an entrepreneur is just starting out and needs a business plan: ERC will send them to the SBDC offices or Score. Maybe a home-based service business is outgrowing the guest bedroom: “Then let’s get you in the (business) incubator,” Widmar said.

ERC hosts workshops and courses that cover topics like Facebook for business and other marketing strategies. Its peer-to-peer roundtables are confidential groups of business owners that gather monthly to help solve one another’s problems. ERC also offers technical assistance.

“We serve as consultants and coaches and will work one on one with the business owner or their leadership team and address the issues they’re facing,” Widmar said. “Some (issues) may be financing, but a lot of it is about leadership, development, learning how to delegate, improve systems, policies and procedures, and grow…. We want to make sure the entrepreneur has the right skills to keep growing that business.”

What:    Small Business Development Centers, Oshkosh and Green Bay

Where:    UW Oshkosh and UW Green Bay, with an office on the NWTC campus

Web:    wisconsinsbdc.org

About: SBDCs are federally and state-funded resources of the U.S. Small Business Administration. In Wisconsin, they’re generally housed on University of Wisconsin System campuses, said Kauth, director of the Wisconsin SBDC at UW Green Bay. Clients include small business owners looking to grow and entrepreneurs wanting to start a business enterprise.

“That may be the nascent entrepreneur who has an idea, to somebody who’s ready to start and needs an experienced advisor to consult them and advise them on, ‘Am I missing something? What are my blind spots here?’”

Colleen Merrill, director of the SBDC at UW Oshkosh, draws upon a health care analogy, referring to her office’s services as the “entire continuum of care,” from concept to succession planning or selling a business. “For businesses with under 500 employees, which is 97 percent of the businesses in Wisconsin, we offer no-cost business consulting,” Merrill said. “Our primary focus is business consulting for the tire kicker to established businesses.”

The initial consultation determines where the business owner is along that continuum vs. where they want to be. Then Merrill’s team outlines a strategic plan. They’ll do market research, business analysis for established companies to identify inefficiencies, strategic planning and board development, and help with succession plans, mergers and acquisitions, she said.

Green Bay’s SBDC developed training for first-time and experienced supervisors based on local market need. It’s also conducted workshops on leadership, project management, hiring, using financial statements to make decisions, and habits of effective managers. Upcoming programs cover talent development, entrepreneurial training and conflict resolution.

Both SDBC offices work closely with other business assistance programs to which to make referrals if they’re not able to help.

“If there’s an expertise they need beyond our capability, we’ll get them in contact with that person and, quite often, if we’re giving them a couple different options or referrals, first we’ll advise them to go to someone who is no cost, and if there is no such entity, we’ll let them know,” Kauth said.

So no need to worry about which agency to call first.

What:    E-Hub/Urban Hope Entrepreneur Center

Where:    Green Bay

Web:    urbanhopegb.org

Contact: 920.884.9707

About: E-Hub and its entrepreneur center work with ready-to-launch entrepreneurs to existing businesses looking to retool. Its key program, Stepping up to New Opportunities, covers everything from business plans to ethics to business management issues.

Since its own launch in 2002, it’s helped start more than 800 businesses in 32 states and has graduated more than 2,400 people. It has no boundaries, so participation isn’t limited.

“As a resource, we aren’t just local but national,” said Mark Burwell, director for E-Hub. “We’re by far the largest organization as far as entrepreneurial development north of Milwaukee.”

E-Hub’s Entrepreneur Advantage series focuses on businesses that are rebooting, looking to make changes to grow. Other topics include digital marketing, workplace civility, start-up entrepreneurial marketing and business modeling.

“Business plans are kind of old hat but are still needed, but business modeling is really the front end and back end of the business,” Burwell said. “That curriculum gets people into the business model by showing them how to develop partnerships, resources and activities – in other words, the value proposition, the basic building blocks, incorporating them into the real-life business situation.”

What: Venture Center

Where: Fox Valley Technical College, Appleton

Web: venturecenterwi.biz

Contact: 920.996.2949 or email venture@fvtc.edu

About: Venture Center is a “community of entrepreneurs and business owners as well as people thinking about starting a business,” according to its director, Amy Pietsch. “Through collaboration, education, training and networking, our goal is to help contribute to business launches, small business growth and economic vitality to the communities that Fox Valley Technical College serves,” she said.

Venture Center offers education, training and mentoring for entrepreneurs. Its signature series, E-Seed, has guided many entrepreneurs from business plan to launch and beyond.

“It’s ideal for people thinking about starting a business, as well as early-stage business owners,” Pietsch said.

For existing small business owners with decades of history interested in growing customers, sales and profits, Venture Center has answers.

“We provide them with seminars and workshops and also one-on-one technical assistance that helps them increase their skill sets and their abilities to realize those growth objectives,” Pietsch said.

Its Business Model Design workshop is all about “empowering your product or service with a business model that helps provide competitive advantage,” Pietsch said.

In other words, clearly articulating and understanding how your business makes money and then developing business models that promote a competitive advantage.

“It used to be about having the best product or service and building a successful business around that,” Pietsch said. “Today you still need to have the best product or service or technology, but you need to empower that with a powerful business model that helps you most effectively make money.”

Case in point: Amazon.com. It launched 20 years ago as an online bookseller and evolved many times to remain competitive. Today it’s an online retailer of almost everything – but has also become a technology company that does warehousing and storage of platforms for businesses of all sizes, she said. “For companies that want to be able to compete into the future, having a powerful business model is extremely important.”

What:    Ignite! Business Success

Where:    Fond du Lac

Web:    ignitefonddulaccounty.com

Contact: 920.929.7541

About: Ever spend money chasing a fantasy (say, through one of those “One Weird Trick” ploys) and then want to kick yourself after?

Ignite! Business Success aims to prevent entrepreneurs from wasting money heading down the wrong path.

Ignite! started in 2014 as a means of uniting 14 disparate business-resource partners. It’s grown to 17 resource providers now, from Advocap to Ripon College’s Creative Enterprise Consultants.

“You could be a small mom-and-pop storefront business or an entrepreneur in technology, and we have resources available for all of those,” said Steve Jenkins, president of Fond du Lac County Economic Development Corp., which created and manages Ignite! “We feel we’ve got a complete system – our resources range from technical assistance to financing.”

Tech entrepreneurs can take advantage of the Emergent Technology Center, one of the 17 partners, an accelerator based on lean start up. It graduated its first cohort in 2015 and will start a second group this spring for a 10-week course.

Getting started with Ignite! requires meeting to assess a business’s needs.

“What we’ve discovered is that what an entrepreneur thinks are their needs aren’t necessarily what their needs are,” Jenkins said. It also involves a 90-question inventory on the entrepreneur.

“We’re not looking at your business or business idea, but more on your capacity to be an entrepreneur: where are your strengths and weaknesses, and how can your weaknesses be bolstered into strengths?”

Ignite! will refer business owners to its resource partners. They’re aiming to raise the overall success rate of start-up entrepreneurship. Jenkins said the failure rate for startups is 90 percent within the first five years.

“Even though you may have a good idea, you may not have the attributes necessary to drive that idea to success,” Jenkins said. “If you have weaknesses, we’d advise you to consider bringing on a partner that helps fill the weaknesses.”

Someone who’s technically savvy but without business skills might be advised to find a founding partner with business skills, for example.

The Imagination Network, a peer group of entrepreneurs, meets monthly in Fond du Lac to practice pitching their idea to investors or discuss the myriad of aspects of running a business. The meetings draw a core group of 30 to 40, with some 400 participants on the mailing list.

Jenkins said nearly 90 to 95 percent of the agency’s programs are free to the entrepreneur.

The Ignite! model has drawn national attention from communities interested in doing something similar for entrepreneurs, Jenkins said.

“We have a philosophy that any economic development program should have an entrepreneurship component, and if it doesn’t, you’d better get one pretty quickly – and understand the value that entrepreneurs bring to the economic system of your community.”

Lee Reinsch of Green Bay worked 18 years at daily newspapers before launching her freelance business, edgewise, in 2007.