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To Start Your Own Business, Know The SCORE

Published 02/18/2012
The News & Observer in Raleigh, NC

Bridgette Lacy writes monthly about resources for unemployed workers.

Jake Martin acknowledges that before he lost his job as a video game developer, he was feeling burned out, frustrated and unappreciated.

Martin, 34, said he saw too many young people being hired right out of school but not nurtured. He started dreaming about starting his own company and doing things his way.

"Game developers are not the most sociable people," he explained. "I like to instill a social aspect of being in a business instead of just the get-it-done, turn-it-out-as-fast-as-you-can mentality."

But it took being laid off from Raleigh-based Virtual Heroes to give him the push and the time he needed to research what his own business would look like and how he could get it going.

Now he's in the process of getting a business license for his company, Brain Bone.

He credits SCORE with getting him to this point. The Service Corps of Retired Executives is a nationwide nonprofit association that has been dedicated to educating entrepreneurs and helping small businesses start, grow and succeed since it was started in 1964.

Free counseling

The Triangle has two SCORE chapters: one in Raleigh, which serves Wake and Durham County residents, and one in Chapel Hill, which serves residents Orange, Chatham and Durham counties.

The Raleigh chapter has 50 counselors and, despite the "retired" in the group's name, 20 percent are still working, said William C. Zinno, chairman of the chapter. Their fields of expertise include manufacturing, finance, and marketing, Zinno said. The Chapel Hill chapter has 31 counselors, 29 retired and two employed full-time.

Anyone interested in starting his or her own business can contact SCORE for advice that ranges from writing a business plan to figuring out sources for financial backing. "All of our counseling is free," Zinno explains, and "you can get one hour to 100 hours with us."

SCORE also offers educational workshops, tools and templates for business plans, cash flow sheets, and a list of suggested providers that includes local attorneys, Web designers, marketers and accountants.

In 2009 and 2010, the group helped 3,519 businesses get started in North Carolina. Among those in the Triangle that have been helped by SCORE is Holly Aiken's handbag company Stitch, in downtown Raleigh, and Showroom Shine, an automobile detailing business in Chapel Hill. In 2011, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce named Showroom Shine the best small business of the year.

Martin, who lives in Cary, found out about SCORE through the Division of Employment Security office in Durham. A SCORE counselor makes a monthly presentation at the Durham office to men and women who recognize that not everyone will be able to return to the workforce without starting a business.

According to statistics released this month from the N.C. Department of Commerce's Labor and Economic Analysis Division, unemployment rates increased in December in 93 of North Carolina's 100 counties. The state's rate is 9.9 percent; the national average is 8.5 percent. It's no wonder that DES employment consultant Bob King asked SCORE for assistance, recognizing that some jobseekers will have to create their own opportunities.

Long-term unemployed men and women are finding it hard to make the same income they made before their layoffs, said John Kiley, chairman of the Chapel Hill SCORE chapter. Many return to lower positions and pay.

"They don't want to be controlled every year in terms of what they will make. They want more than they can earn on that job," he said.

About 10 people usually attend the two-hour SCORE presentation, which introduces potential clients to its services, which include a special program for military members and their families.

Giving back

Martin, the son of a veteran, is attending a 10-week workshop called "Simple Steps for American Vets," taught by Hillsborough resident John Wyman. A retired AT&T manager, Wyman is passionate about teaching what he knows about business to SCORE clients. "I want to be known for giving back," Wyman says.

Wyman, a former Army lieutenant, educates veterans and their family members on how to start a business or boost a failing business. "This is a give back to the Vet community," Wyman says. Twelve people are in the class, five of them with existing businesses and seven of them starting one.

Students review case studies of businesses using profit-and-loss statements and consultant overviews. They then analyze what's wrong with the businesses and offer solutions to correct the problems.

The workshop is funded with a $500,000 grant from the Walmart Foundation, which pays for books and other materials, and rent. Wyman volunteers his time to teach the course. It's a part of the "Veterans Fast Launch" initiative to help military families start their own businesses.

The underappreciated

SCORE doesn't just help the unemployed, or what some are calling forced entrepreneurs.

Some turn to SCORE because they've got a great idea for a business or simply because they're ready to work for themselves rather than be taken advantage of.

Count Durham physical therapist Misty Pidgeon among the latter. She had worked for the same company for nine years and received glowing performance reviews, but her raises didn't match.

While her compensation didn't measurably increase, her workload and responsibilities did. When a manager was fired from the company, she and others were given the person's responsibilities without additional pay.

"I couldn't tolerate that environment," she says.

A friend mentioned SCORE. She went on the website of the Chapel Hill chapter and scheduled her first counseling session. Pidgeon, the mother of four children, said that her homework was to write a business plan and that initially she felt overwhelmed.

But Kiley told her where to find a business plan template and checked in with her every few days. Then he helped her with a budget, figuring out expenses such as rent for an office and equipment. He made her a spreadsheet outlining how much the telephone, Internet and other expenses would cost monthly. He helped her figure how many patients she would need to cover her expenses and make a profit.

"I didn't think I could do this on my own," Pidgeon said. "I knew how to be a physical therapist, but I didn't know how to manage a physical therapy business."

But she opened the N.C. Center for Physical Therapy in November 2010, and she hasn't looked back.

"I'm treating my patients for quality of care and not quantity of care," she says. "You have to overcome your own fears to start your own business."

And it helps if you have people guiding you along the way.