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Saturday, April 21, 2018

Small Business Center Moves to WCC

By Janet Miller

Most cities have the same predictable big-box stores lining their busy arteries, making it hard to tell one town from the next.

It’s the small businesses—from the tiny coffee shop with the exposed brick walls to the local art gallery—that help define a place. That make it special. That make it home.

WCC hosts the Small Business and Technology Development Center, a real-life dream maker that helps entrepreneurs in a six-county area (Washtenaw, Livingston, Jackson, Hillsdale, Monroe, and Lenawee) turn their ideas into businesses and their businesses into thriving operations. The center helps a range of companies, from start-ups to mature organizations looking to grow, from health care companies to car washes.

It has become a one-stop shop for market research, training, and business counseling. It helps business owners search for loans, write business plans, understand merchandising, and explore market strategies. Increasingly, it works with businesses to leverage social media.

Community Outreach is the Main Goal

“We’re the community part of the community college,” said Shannon Beeman, intake business consultant at the SBTDC. “We serve the community. We go out into the community and support businesses that then support the College.”

Megan Torrance, founder and CEO of TorranceLearning, an e-learning business in Chelsea, credits the SBTDC with her company’s survival. “Without the SBTDC we would have stayed much smaller. I wouldn’t have had the guts to expand,” Torrance said. “And if we didn’t expand, we probably wouldn’t have survived.”

The SBTDC also fits with the workforce development mission of the College, said Charlie Penner, regional director of the SBTDC. In April the SBTDC moved from Ypsilanti to the WCC campus. The move will allow the center to work more closely with College programs such as LifeLong Learning and with the business department. “We work with the small-business owners who hire our graduates,” Penner said.

Center Provides Workshops and Support

Sometimes, it’s the College’s own students who launch the businesses and turn to the SBTDC.

Take Mike Winter. Winter comes from a family of entrepreneurs. He had manager responsibilities at his last job. His mother, an accountant, knows finances. And he’d taken customer relations classes at WCC.

Still, Winter looked to the SBTDC for guidance, and credits the center with putting him on a growth track with his Chelsea-based business, Mike’s Diesel Performance. It offers after-market products for pickup trucks and other diesel vehicles.

With the center’s help, Winter began writing a business plan, which will position him to apply for a Small Business Administration loan. The loan, he said, will allow him to expand services and increase his product line. He also attended an SBTDC workshop on SBA loans, where he was able to meet bankers.

Part of a Statewide Network

The SBTDC has been affiliated with WCC for more than 15 years and is one of 10 regional offices throughout Michigan. It’s a program of the federal SBA.

It works with a wide variety of businesses, from one-person operations to mature companies with 200 employees. SBTDC staff recently met with top managers of a $10 million company about using social media. An entrepreneur looking to open a car wash came to the SBTDC looking for market research data.

Some of the services the SBTDC offers include:

  • No- to low-cost training: Much of the training is for early-stage businesses on topics like writing a business plan, marketing, and the fundamentals of finance. But there’s also advanced training for established businesses in subjects such as increasing sales, financial fitness, fast-track growth, and using social media. The SBTDC recently partnered with Google and will provide training on no-cost websites for small businesses.
  • No cost, one-on-one business counseling: SBTDC staff review business plans, consult about loans (there are two retired bankers who offer help), and discuss marketing.
  • Market research: A client looking to open a laundry wanted to know how many renters with small children were near a potential location. Another wanted to track traffic patterns in front of a possible location. There’s also a wealth of data about trends, Penner said. “A while ago, someone wanted to know if it was a good time to open a low-carb bakery,” he said. The local-food movement has spawned a growing interest in food businesses, he said, from distilleries and wineries to farming.
  • Referrals: The SBTDC has a long list of other professionals who can help, from attorneys to certified public accountants. It also offers referrals to agencies such as the U.S. Export Assistance Center for businesses looking to expand beyond U.S. borders.

There’s No Catch

With an MBA from Cornell, Torrance of TorranceLearning had plenty of book learning when it came time to start her company in 2008. But it was after speaking with the SBTDC that Torrance was convinced she would be able to grow her company that today has 14 employees, she said. The WCC center helped her with employee hiring strategies when it came time to add specialists such as writers, graphic designers, and someone to do voiceovers.

TorranceLearning designs and builds custom online learning programs for companies and large organizations. Its programs do everything from teaching employees how to spray dried cheese on potato chips to teaching volunteers of the National Marrow Donor Program how to run a bone marrow drive.

When another business owner plugged Torrance into the SBTDC four years ago, she was skeptical. “I thought there has to be a catch,” Torrance said. “Who gives away free counseling? But I sat down with Charlie Penner and he asked me really insightful questions. He challenged my thinking. And there never was a catch, so I keep coming back.”

Janet Miller is a freelance writer.

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