Why work for others when you can work for yourself, right? For many, the decision to start a small business seems like a match made in career heaven, until reality sets in. Do they know their market? Do they have a business plan? Do they even know where to start? Finding the right answers can be a challenge. For thousands of entrepreneurs around Dane, Sauk and Columbia counties, the partnership between the Small Business Development Center at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the UW–Madison Business Library is a critical, game-changing piece of the puzzle when it comes to business development.
“You believe in your ideas, but you need to be challenged by people who have expertise that can improve your ideas,” said Doctor Renato Romani, a client of the SBDC and founder of Easy Way to Health. “The SBDC and the Business Library gave me the tools to create a real business plan.”
Romani approached the SBDC in early 2015 to help with his idea to develop an app (through his WOA System) that tracks human weight without showing numbers, in order to inspire people to track their weight and improve people’s health, therefore reducing health care costs. Through special public Wi-Fi scales placed around the city, individuals with his app could “check in” to track their health progress. Already the owner of a successful business in his native Brazil, he said he still needed help identifying key market information in Madison.
“I’ve been working in the business areas of health care for several years. But when you’re talking about a small business, it’s about needing to survive, needing to sell your product,” Romani explained. “Between the SBDC and the Business Library, I couldn’t think of a better place to help me dig out the information I needed.”
Romani is just one of 1,200 individuals expected to capitalize on services offered through the SBDC at UW–Madison this year alone. Partially federally funded through the Small Business Administration, the statewide SBDC network has centers at every four year university in Wisconsin.
“We are a center that evolves to meet the needs of the market place,” said Michelle Somes-Booher, a Business Consultant with the SBDC at UW–Madison. “We have a lot of resources available, and since we offer no-cost consulting, we can help people in the early stages of planning.”
One of the resources available to Wisconsin SBDC clients is the Business Library. While their proximity makes for a natural partnership (both are housed in the Wisconsin School of Business at UW–Madison), it’s the information and personnel that makes the alliance invaluable.
“When I send our clients to the Business Library, they are being taken care of,” Somes-Booher explained. “They speak to our classes, meet one-on-one with clients, and find resources people never would have found otherwise. They’re expert business librarians.”
Librarian Peggy Smith is one of the driving forces behind the Business Library’s involvement with the SBDC. In addition to working with UW–Madison School of Business students, she also speaks to SBDC classes and meets one-on-one with clients.
“SBDC does a great job of preparing individuals, so we are able to focus on gathering critical information when we meet,” Smith said. “I am also then able to spend time discussing with them what the information means to their business. With this process, they usually have what they need to successfully continue.”
Another important role instructors said the partnership played is that of helping individuals know when not to pursue their idea. While seeing individuals start successful businesses is the ultimate goal, those involved in the programs note that if someone goes through the process and decided it would not be in their best interest to start a business, that shouldn’t be considered a failure. Instead, it should be looked at as a success because they received the information necessary to save themselves from potential hardship.
Over the years, the partnership between the Business Library and the SBDC has evolved, with the Libraries becoming a formal part of the SBDC process for clients, instead of just a footnote for where to find information.
“I love the process the Business Library and SBDC have created,” Romani said. “I found out that there’s an $8.1 billion market for my business. I was able to find addresses, emails, and phone numbers of 500 companies in the greater area that could become business prospects. It saved a tremendous amount of time and money. I got that information from the Business Library, because SBDC provided them as a resource. It’s given me the confidence to move forward.”
The approach is one the SBDC, the Business Library, and clients say seems to be working. Just part way through 2015, the SBDC had consulted with 323 individuals, 130 of them long-term (meaning more than five hours of consulting). 85 individuals worked with the Business Library. The results of those who seek assistance through SBDC helped start 26 businesses, creating 126 jobs, with clients investing or receiving loans for their businesses for over $9.5 million locally. Statewide, the impact of the SBDC network is close to $165 million. Success stories include everything from manufacturing and technology companies to restaurants, wineries, and real estate.
“If we want businesses to support the UW, then we need to find ways to offer support to businesses as well,” noted Smith.
“We value our partnership with the SBDC and are pleased to share our expertise with them,” added Business Library Director Michael Enyart. “Helping their clients understand how to use the various business resources available to them is an important service we are happy to provide these future business owners.”
In addition to free consultation, those who need help with their ideas have access to an 800 number, and the classes and seminars provided are eligible for grants to cover the costs. If a client’s business plan passes, they’re not required to repay those grants. Somes-Booher said it’s a process that’s critical to encouraging entrepreneurship throughout the state.
“Our goal is to remain nimble and responsive to the needs of the clients we serve,” Somes-Booher said.
Smith simply said, “For the Libraries, this is the Wisconsin Idea in action.”