It might be the best hour you’ve ever spent — if you’re contemplating an entrepreneurial venture or scouting expert counsel for your present small business.
Volunteer mentors at the Midlands chapter of SCORE, Counselors to America’s Small Business (to give the organization’s official name), will sit down with aspiring or existing entrepreneurs, usually in one-hour counseling sessions, work to help them understand their business challenges and send them home with sound advice. It’s all free and, of course, entirely confidential.
“We like to think of it as free business counseling for life,” says Bill Whitehead, chairman of the Midlands chapter, “because there’s no limit to how often or how long a client may come to us for help.”
A resource partner of the U.S. Small Business Administration, SCORE has been around since 1964 and was created by an act of Congress as a national volunteer group to aid small businesses. During its nearly 50-year history, SCORE as a national unit has served more than nine million clients and presently has over 13,000 volunteers and 350 chapters across America. The Midlands chapter, founded in the mid 1970s, covers about 36 percent of South Carolina in nine locations. Fifty-five volunteers with broad professional, executive and small-business experience offer mentoring, workshops (some with a modest fee), speakers and roundtable facilitation. Volunteers are mostly retired businesspeople, although the number of still-working younger volunteers is growing.
SCORE’s mission: giving practical underpinnings to dreams, putting running shoes on terrific ideas, attaching realistic numbers and a plan to visions. In short, SCORE volunteers call on their expertise, energy and past experiences to assist clients in implementing proven business practices to accomplish their business goals. Necessities like developing a business plan, legal organization, financing, accounting, marketing and selling, licensing and many other topics form the substance of SCORE’s services, all served up by committed counselors who act as kind and down-to-earth sounding boards.
Donald Benson came to SCORE in early 2005 with the hope of owning his own business.
“I went to SCORE because of George McIntosh, a local SCORE mentor and a fellow church member. I was talking about buying a business, and he said, ‘Maybe our group can help you. I think maybe John LaFond would be a good person for you to talk to.’ He had John get in touch with me, and over the course of six to eight months, John and I looked at 35 to 40 businesses. We talked several times a week, went over the businesses — what looked good about them and what didn’t — and we’d review the financials together. John helped me through the process of narrowing my choices down. Because of his really great business background, he was able to lend a lot of real-world experience to this process.”
According to Donald, one of the decisions John helped him with involved whether to start a new business or purchase an already-existing one. After analyzing the financials, they concluded that it made more sense for him to buy an already-existing business, and he purchased AAMCO Transmissions of Lexington in late 2005. Donald adds, “I still run things by John from time to time, as I did when I was renegotiating my lease.”
As Donald knows from experience, John has earned a reputation as a go-to guy for business planning, financial analysis and financing. John says that he receives a lot of gratification when somebody gives him a draft of a business plan.
“I go through with a red pen,” he says, “and comment and edit it until it’s right. Nobody gets it right the first time. And most people don’t have a clue how to construct a good financial analysis, which is the last section of any good business plan. The exception was Donald Benson. Donald already had this stuff down cold from his previous professional experience. I became a sounding board for him, a sort of one-person support group. He changed directions two or three times, and what he ended up buying was nothing like what he started out looking at, but he’s making progress and doing well.”
Not everyone has time for a face-to-face mentoring appointment with SCORE, so the organization has created an online counseling service. In their online sessions, SCORE mentors might counsel clients from any of the 50 states, and more than one option is available for these clients to receive their online mentoring. Clients can go to the local SCORE website and send in an email to request the service, then SCORE assigns a local volunteer for online mentoring. Or clients can go to the national site and request online mentoring from there. Online mentors have their business biographies listed on the site, and people can pick out whatever mentor they want to contact for help, based on these biographies.
Bill Whitehead, who has mentored people from as far away as California online, offers yet another means of receiving SCORE’s counsel. “People can also go to the SCORE blog on our national website. Our volunteers moderate this site, read through the questions and offer input, so a business owner could receive maybe 30 to 40 answers to a pressing question and get a lot of different perspectives from people who have experience.”
In one of Bill’s most satisfying online-mentoring encounters, a counselee from another state had a great idea for a state-of-the-art Internet-based product and seemed extremely competent and creative from a technical perspective. “But,” says Bill, “he didn’t seem to know how to go about focusing for the purpose of developing a strategy and marketing plan. This was impacting his ability to get funding, because to get funding you have to put things down in a logical, orderly fashion. I was able to help the client focus and get things written in a manner that was useful in procuring funding. Last time I communicated with him, the project was going forward and looked like it was going to be successful.”
Bill emphasizes the usefulness of SCORE’s free online video workshops for those who cannot attend them live, as well.
Recalling his own journey to successful entrepreneurship, Donald Benson affirms, “SCORE’s mentors provide an outstanding service, and the collective wealth of knowledge they have is invaluable. Most businesses fail in the first five years. SCORE can help you beat the odds.”
SCORE offers free one-hour mentoring sessions at the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce in downtown Columbia and at other locations. Call (803) 765-5131 or visit SCORE online at www.scoremidlands.org for further information on its wide range of client services.
• FREE personal business counseling and mentoring
• The respect and confidential advice of professional businessmen and women
• Practical ideas from people “who have been there” and made a success of it
• Nonconfrontational discussions, like talking to trusted friends and family
• Counselors who are experts or have access to experts on business issues
• Help in defining and analyzing your needs and then help in finding solutions