Small Business Advice Goes Beyond Business As Usual

In the past five years, Judith Mariano has flipped through the pages of her life with unusual speed.

Now the owner of BookWorks in Cookeville, she doesn't have to look back very far to see herself working three jobs -- as a waitress, a secretary and a salesperson. She traded those jobs for a management position at BookWorks almost five years ago, and last October, she bought the store she's grown to love.

Mariano says she's smart enough to know she doesn't know everything, brave enough to ask questions, and informed enough to know the Tennessee Small Business Development Center made all the difference in her transition to becoming a business owner.

"It had been 30 years since I'd had accounting, I was unfamiliar with some business jargon, and I didn't believe I had the business background to be a successful business owner," said Mariano. "Marcia Reel and the Small Business Development Center were godsends."

Reel directs the TTU/Cookeville branch of the TSBDC, a network of 18 centers and offices across the state that serve, just as the name implies, to help people open new businesses or expand the markets for existing businesses.

"We're not the experts, but we have tremendous resources that we can lead our clients to," said Reel. "We work with clients on tasks from as small as a brochure to as large as writing a business plan from scratch."

Mariano opted for full service. Although she had experience as a secretary and the life experience of a being a single mother, she says she didn't know where to start when BookWorks' previous owner, Don Calcote, suggested she buy the business. She was uncomfortable with the unfamiliar business jargon and daunted by the detailed paperwork required to apply for a small business development loan.

"But when I started working with Marcia and realized I could develop ongoing partnerships in this community with people whose experience I could draw on, the goal seemed so much more doable," said Mariano.

The "doable" message is what Reel, business specialist Jenny Carter, secretary and communication specialist Alexis Twyman and graduate staff assistant Jessica Hitchock try to relate to any future or current business owner with concerns. Just thinking about starting a new business can be overwhelming.

The "How to Start a Business" seminar features a frank discussion about personal commitment, license requirements, the necessity of a business plan and financing options. Sorting through that information helps many entrepreneurs evaluate if owning a business is right for them. If so, the TSBDC provides customized one-on-one counseling for the client to work through their business needs. This might include choosing business software packages, translating financial statements, deciding how to find capital, or determining which direction to go with a marketing campaign.

Additional training classes are offered which include step-by-step business plan instruction, advice on how to get a small business loan, how to deal with taxes and the IRS, and many other issues, including human resources, customer service and technology. Any information shared with the center's personnel is kept confidential.

The clincher is that "the one-on-one counseling is already paid for so there's no cost to the client, except for an occasional materials fee for a training class," said Reel. The U.S. Small Business Administration provides half the funding for the center, and Tennessee Tech University's College of Business and its Center for Manufacturing Research also contribute funds and support, along with the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development.

In 2001, Tennessee Small Business Development Centers provided more than 27,000 hours of one-on-one counseling to almost 4,700 clients. These clients realized job growth 23 times larger than the state's average and more than 29 times the national average.
More than 80 percent of TSBDC clients say they would have been unable to obtain counseling of similar quality from a private consultant for a price they were willing to pay.

Reel points out that although the advice and resources available are tremendous, the TSBDC doesn't offer what some people come in expecting -- grant money.

"We are not the source of grant money for starting a new business," said Reel. "Some people come in good faith, often having paid another party for what they thought was a lead on how to find money to start a business. There are loans available for individuals who meet the banks' qualifications, but grants are very difficult to find. But we do help businesses learn about financing options and help them prepare all the paperwork.

"Another misconception is that we're only for startup businesses. We have a lot of resources for existing businesses looking to expand into new markets," she said.

Tennessee Tech University's Johnson Hall housed the TSBDC for several years. But with the opening of the new Leslie Town Centre, the center obtained additional office space and enhanced its working relationship with the Cookeville Area-Putnam County Chamber of Commerce. Carter and other support staff work from the TTU location, and Reel's office in the Town Centre location offers convenient access for chamber members seeking business counseling and training.

Mariano appreciates the university connection because she's taken advantage of another benefit offered by the center. The center matches businesses with Tennessee Tech MBA students who provide free consulting services.

"I am still implementing the students' recommendations because they came up with so many good ideas and asked questions I would have never thought to ask," said Mariano. "All of their suggestions were practical and affordable."

Reel says any business wanting to take advantage of this offer should call the TSBDC and asked to be matched with a student group. She also says the center is currently putting together a list of area home-based business owners who might be interested in meeting monthly for a networking breakfast.

"Huge leaps in life are scary," said Mariano. "But knowing you are not alone and can draw on other's experience allows you to accomplish the unexpected."

For information about registration for classes and seminars, one-on-one counseling services, networking groups or other services, call 372-3648.