So you have a dynamite cookie recipe and you think you could become the next Mrs. Fields - selling fresh-baked goodness in malls across America. But are cookies the food of yesterday? Are malls history? What do you need to know to make a go of your business?
Many people dream of starting their own business. The reasons are as different as the business they'd like to start - looking for creative expression, autonomy, independence, self-fulfillment, a better way to contribute to society, flexible hours. In short, better life satisfaction.
"The First Step," a beginning class for fledgling entrepreneurs offered through the UW's Small Business Development Center, is well populated on a cold January night during intersession. Grainger Hall, on campus, is empty save for these 20 prospective small business owners and instructor Dee Relyea.
"I know it's tough to come here and do this after a full day," says Relyea, who's been teaching at the Development Center for three years. She's also a workplace consultant and career coach. The two-and-a-half-hour class focuses on some of the ways a person should start planning a business. It's not just an introduction to the small-business mindset; it's also an introduction to the entire Small Business Development Center, which offers many more specialized courses as well.
"Part of my job is to be a cheerleader, but I'm also a reality check," says Relyea.
This class, offered four times throughout any given semester (the next one takes place March 10), is populated with newbies. Most have an idea of what sort of business they'd like to open, and why they'd like to be self-employed, but haven't gotten far beyond that, although one attendee has already researched her niche business and is scouting the city for feasible sites. The students range from a stay-at-home mom to a newly retired Army vet.
What makes a good business idea? Relyea throws this question out to the group. You have to think about the zeitgeist. Avoid dying technologies. Anything having to do with boomers retiring is good. Anything green is good. Destination weddings are hot. But how will your product be different from what's already out there?
Video segments featuring several Wisconsin small business owners illustrate some of the more sobering aspects to think about - family conflicts, stress, and handling negative feedback, among them.
Relyea also points students to websites and other resources that may be helpful, as well as books in the UW Business Library available to any Wisconsin resident.
The course is basic, but a good starting point. It will likely weed out individuals who have a completely unrealistic concept of what it means to start a business, and will provide a more solid basis of planning to others asking, "How do I move forward? And how am I going to finance this venture, anyhow?"
Sometimes a participant will be devoted to a business idea that doesn't seem to hold a lot of promise. "It's not my job to render judgment," Relyea says. "After all, I could be wrong. But I encourage that person to do the market research."
People in the class are friendly, enthusiastic and eager to share what they know about opportunities in the area. If you're looking for a business partner or a way to meet brainstorming partners, the class can be a decent networking opportunity.
"I want students to leave the class feeling supported, that yes, it is possible for them to do what they want to do, that there are tools, support and guidelines to help them every step of the way," says Relyea.
Neil Lerner has been the director of the UW-Madison Small Business Development Center for the last 12 years. This national program was started in the late 1970s as outreach to small business owners, modeled on the successful agricultural extension outreach program.
The Madison market is fairly strong for entrepreneurs, says Lerner, and there are always a fair number of them looking to start new endeavors. In other parts of the state, small business centers may put more emphasis on stimulating businesses, but that's not typically necessary in Madison.
The center also maintains a "hotline" answer line just for Dane, Sauk and Columbia counties. "We're not here to be consultants," says Lerner, nor do they write business plans, but they do direct early-stage business owners as well as established small business owners to classes that fit their needs.
Once a business has survived the early years and even has a few employees, the owner may need help in gaining leadership and management skills, strategic and sales thinking and so forth.
Classes meet throughout the year. Lerner says there's an average of about 3,500 enrollments a year in over a hundred different classes.
The "Starting a Business" program continues with "Small Business Fundamentals," "Developing Your Business Plan," "Entrepreneurial Training Grant Certificate Program" and "Small Business Tax Expo."
Advanced courses focus on particulars - financial issues, personnel management, web marketing, QuickBooks, the special challenges women face in business. There's even a Youth Entrepreneur Camp in summer.
"The center is not just for startups," Lerner stresses. "There are a lot of classes for existing businesses, on what they need to be able to grow."
Small biz, big plans
UW Small Business Development Center
Grainger Hall, 975 University Ave.
Wisconsin Business Answer Line
8:30 am-4:30 pm Mon.-Fri.
"The First Step"
Offered 3/10, 4/29 and 6/2, 6:30-9 pm, $35; to register call 608-262-3909.