Big business doesn’t happen overnight. Start-ups begin small, take time, and require both time and monetary investments, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to be a successful entrepreneur. The first step is romancing your way out of the grandeur of owning your own business and being your own boss. Like putting down $50 on red and the ball landing on green, it’s not a 50-50 deal, but with the right plan, and the right friends, you could one day sign your own paychecks.
SCORE, formerly the Service Corps of Retired Executives, asks the hard questions to prospective entrepreneurs. SCORE is a national, nonprofit organization with more than 13,000 volunteers in the U.S. that offers free mentoring to entrepreneurs and small businesses. The Evansville chapter won SCORE’s Indiana District’s 2010 Chapter of the Year award, and includes mentors in engineering, human resources, international sales, law, marketing, finance, and various other areas of business.
SCORE is accessible to small businesses in any stage — whether it’s in the embryo phase or three years in. The first step is to meet with Howard Southerland, Tom Koetting, or 29 other mentors to assess the specific areas where SCORE can help.
Southerland spent 30 years with General Electric in accounting, distribution, and computer services positions, and now he wants to share some of the things he learned throughout his career. “SCORE acts as a sounding board for our clients, and we check the veracity of their decision making,” he says. These decisions could be product pricing, human resource issues, legal, or general business-related operations. Southerland says it’s important when assessing new business ideas to determine if an idea is viable before someone spends money on it.
“A lot of people say they’re sick and tired of their bosses, or are simply out of work,” says Rob Bonger, chair of the Evansville SCORE chapter. Bonger worked as a mechanical engineer and technical buyer in the Netherlands, then South Africa, Houston, New Jersey, and eventually Evansville for several companies. SCORE mentors don’t make decisions for people seeking their help. Instead, they ask the important questions that eager clients might avoid or have missed. “If an idea is overly complex or unmarketable, it’s important that they understand it’s not worth their time and money before they try to spend what they might not have,” he says. Is the product useful? Is it already on the market? Would it be competitive?
Each new client is paired with a prime counselor who serves as the initial contact. After that first meeting, the counselor determines what kind of additional mentors are needed to help guide the business. Some small businesses need technical assistance, for example, and others need extensive manufacturing or marketing guidance for their product. Once that is covered, meetings are planned with the clients, and the real work begins.
“New business owners need patience, preparation, and proper motivation,” says Bonger. “Don’t quit your day job and lose your medical insurance and salary, or else you’ll be broke before you even start.” The first step is to create a break-even analysis (costs and revenues to see if the product has a future), then a business plan. Bonger, as well as Southerland and Koetting, all say the same thing: new business owners need to be prepared, not be too optimistic, and form a realistic business plan that gives an objective view of their business. A good plan explains what your business does and how it will operate, determines if there’s a need for loans, overviews marketing strategies and competition, and determines the direction of the business. From there, entrepreneurs can begin the process of registering their business, setting up bank accounts, getting proper accounting software, finding employees, and everything that follows.
Around a quarter of SCORE’s new clients are existing businesses, a number they hope to increase. “We look for ways existing businesses can improve their results and efficiency,” Koetting says. Expansion is difficult for successful start-ups, who may be left with the ‘where do I go from here?’ question. Do you hire more employees, adjust your marketing system, expand the product line? SCORE mentors have experience in all of these aspects.
Every start-up is unique and has its own set of challenges. SCORE makes it easier, taking nothing in return except the satisfaction of helping the community grow existing businesses and pioneer new ones. SCORE mentors know where the pitfalls are, and are willing to put forth the time and effort to support entrepreneurs however they can.
“We get clients who come in here who think they have zillion dollar ideas,” says Southerland. “We want them to think big, but realistically. Some people just aren’t ready to start a business, and say ‘Oops, we were wrong.’”
Evansville SCORE’s chapter office, located at Innovation Pointe, 318 Main St., Suite 223, has open doors for new or existing small business owners. Schedule a meeting with a mentor online at www.evansville.score.org, or give them a call at 812-426-6144. SCORE also hosts entrepreneurial workshops.
These five local entrepreneurs utilized SCORE in some fashion, and have since done well with their businesses
Jennifer Korb – Founder, Jennifer’s Kitchen
Successful small businesses are at risk of overextending themselves, and without the right help it could be their downfall.
Korb began catering out of her home 11 years ago, which she supplemented with a frozen meal replacement business (imagine Schwans without a truck). Soon, her small business was doing so well she contacted SCORE about expanding. SCORE mentors Tom Koetting and Jack Headlee helped Korb research a location. She got to work on a business plan, looked into health/fire code requirements, and opened Jennifer’s Kitchen on Lincoln Avenue, where she exceeded her three-year business plan in less than one year.
“The frozen food business was growing,” Korb says, but she decided not to franchise with bigger companies. She kept to what she knew, and continued catering and keeping up with her frozen meal order and pick-up service. Her dishes grew recognition, and in July 2009, her specialty coffee cakes were juried onto the New York Summer Fancy Food Show. “My booth was all the way at the end, in nowheresville,” she says. “But by the end of 2009, my coffee cakes had a place on QVC.com,” an online store.
With three arms to juggle (catering, frozen meals, and coffee cakes), Korb could hardly keep up. In May 2011, she merged with Dean Miller at Maxine’s Bakery on North Green River Road, where she could utilize a large industrial bakery. “I thought Maxine’s would be a great fit because of their excellent reputation and that it would be a way to expand their services,” she says. Korb grew her frozen meal and catering service, and started directly mailing coffeecakes. Since then, Korb has been careful not to overextend herself. “You need the right people who have strengths where your strength isn’t,” she says. “There are so many incidentals, you just have to roll with the punches and not crumble when you mess up.”
Paul Saunders – Founder and Owner, ExceptionalSheets.com
Saunders’ idea wasn’t a novel one. In fact, it was an idea he knew he couldn’t carry out on his own.
Saunders went from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., to seven years as an officer in the U.S. Marines. His first career out of the service was as a buyer for Whirlpool, then as a manager in procurement with Mead Johnson Nutrition. He started ExceptionalSheets.com as a weekend project 18 months ago. His idea was to sell quality Egyptian cotton sheets and linens on the web, without the brick and mortar.
“Selling shoes isn’t a new idea,” Saunders says. “But everyone has heard of Zappos, who started selling them online — look at them now.” Saunders’ philosophy is not worrying about coming up with the perfect product or something entirely original; he took an idea (selling sheets), and adopted an efficient, useful, and profitable approach, but not without struggles.
“I knew how to use computers to write papers and browse ESPN.com, not how to make a website behave,” he says. E-commerce is a world of opportunity that takes time and at least a minimal investment, but it is also full of the “sign up to be a full-time millionaire” schemes. “Once I found the right contractor, all I had to do was find out how to formalize my business,” he says. That’s when SCORE came in.
Although hesitant at first with SCORE’s motives (because “free” often sounds too good to be true), Saunders met with mentor Bob Ubelhor, a 1958 graduate of the University of Evansville, where he studied marketing, and spent nearly the next decade in the U.S. Air Force. Ubelhor then spent 29 years (with six different vice president titles) with Keller Crescent Co. in Evansville, and joined SCORE in 2007. Ubelhor used his experience to help Saunders formalize a business plan. Later, he met with marketing and operational mentors, and worked on a post-business plan on how to mature his company, which he has moved into a full-time project. He started taking MBA classes at Vanderbilt University, and since launching the business 18 months ago, ExceptionalSheets.com has exceeded $250,000 in revenue. He has also applied to be a SCORE mentor.
Saunders notes that anyone launching a business needs to be aware that they do everything, from negotiating prices and stuffing boxes to hiring and firing employees. Now set on expansion, Saunders is moving his three-car warehouse full of sheets to commercial property, and is looking for local, permanent web contractors. Only 33 years old, this Evansville native did what he set out to do by being careful and accessing a market, and has his own determination and SCORE to thank for his success.
Greg Kissel – Founder, Kissel Land Surveying
Kissel finds that being involved with every aspect of his small business allows him to better manage his employees and clients.
After 13 years of land surveying and running out of room for advancement, Kissel decided it was time to start his own venture. He founded Kissel Land Surveying in March 2010, and offers topographic services and helps clients in the private sector find property boundaries and write up paperwork for property transfers. Kissel found an advantage in small-scale operations; he doesn’t have to oversee several different crews in the field at one time, and is able to directly observe each survey, which means fewer mistakes and easier communication.
Starting his business wasn’t a natural transition for Kissel. “I’m a licensed surveyor, not a businessman,” he says. “There’s a lot of non-billable time involved, and as the owner I’m held accountable for every aspect.” SCORE mentor Rob Bonger helped him with business and marketing plans. “The best advice I’ve gotten was when Rob told me to look within my own profession for help,” he says.
Allison Algaier – Owner, Phoenix Modular Elevators
Algaier didn’t know anything about elevators, but with good business sense and a little help she’s re-raised a company.
“Elevators aren’t an impulse buy,” Algaier says. Modular elevators are unique in the industry; they are constructed horizontally, then shipped whole to be attached to buildings. Algaier, who lives in Newburgh, Ind., wanted to transition her eight years of marketing and operations experience from Alcoa to start her own business. She purchased assets from Infinite Access, a modular elevator company that closed in 2008. Howard Southerland, one of her SCORE mentors, helped her proceed in acquiring it. She then re-hired the good employees and, starting from scratch, has since doubled the amount of modular elevators they shipped out in 2011.
Phoenix Modular Elevators’ manufacturing plant is in Mount Vernon, Ill., and the elevators and shafts built there are shipped all over the country. Since modular elevators are still patented, she made use of her marketing skills to get the word out to architects. As for SCORE, Algaier says they became her advisory board. “I continue to meet with them for new ideas,” she says. “They’re like my cheering squad, and help me avoid mistakes.” Algaier learned that starting a business, or picking one up where it left off, isn’t all glamour and excitement. It has been one of the toughest and most rewarding things she’s ever done. “I made a decision to go forward and run with it,” she says, and she doesn’t plan on stopping.
Linda Kron – Founder, New Image Gardening
Kron had to learn how to sell her expertise, and with SCORE, this entrepreneur was able to succeed.
Kron found a niche in garden care and landscaping, and using her hard-earned knowledge and experience she started New Image Gardening four years ago with her friend Kim Ahrens, who has helped Kron since the beginning. She knew how to design and landscape but had no idea what it took to run a business.
She met with SCORE mentors Bob Milne (who specializes in marketing and sales) and Howard Southerland, who she now sees as fundamental partners in her success. “I had a hard time trying to figure out cost and management,” Kron says. “SCORE had me look at every detail, from naming my business to finding my competitors.” Kron says the hardest part of starting a business is the tendency to sell oneself short. Hesitant to raise prices to market level, Kron quickly realized that risks are worth taking if you plan accordingly. “Bob Milne asked me if I was starting a business or a hobby,” she says. “I’m glad they helped me bring it up to the next level.”
Kron continues to meet with her mentors every six months, and pushes herself to do more than what she would have done on her own. “They say 50 percent of new businesses fail within the first five years,” she says. “That won’t happen to me.”