When Donnella Tilery left her publishing job six years ago to start an event-planning business, she devoted $5,000 to entrepreneurship training. Owning a small business was “a totally new thing for me; it wasn’t a core competency, and I just knew I needed an education,” says Tilery, the 39-year-old owner of DC PR Worldwide in Raritan, N.J.
Navigating the vast universe of business training courses and picking the right curriculum, at the right cost, can be tougher than it sounds. Classes may be offered in person, by conference call, or online. They cover a wide variety of topics, and while many are free, others can get expensive. Those who choose full-fledged, advanced business degrees will spend tens of thousands and may find a heavy academic focus that’s not particularly applicable in the real world. A worst-case scenario: Unscrupulous individuals take advantage of aspiring entrepreneurs who may possess startup capital but lack sophistication or skepticism.
“There are many sources that advertise entrepreneurship is for everyone, and they can teach anyone who puts in the hard work to be successful,” says Kelvin Ho, executive director of My Own Business, a nonprofit that has offered free business startup training since 1992. “That’s simply not true: There are people out there who are not meant for entrepreneurship.”
Cora Lonning, an organizational development consultant and adjunct business professor at Marylhurst University in Oregon, says online business training can be “inaccurate, inconsistent, and outdated.”
TO SPEND, OR NOT TO SPEND
The money Tilery put into prepping her startup was well spent, she says now. She enrolled in courses offered by the New Jersey Institute of Technology, as well as the Harvard Business Review, and participated in social media webinars from Vocus (VOCS). The founder of New Jersey Fashion Week in 2009, Tilery says she got vital education and professional referrals: Two teachers became mentors and now sit on her company’s advisory board.
But not every would-be business owner has such a good experience. J.D. Crouse, the 41-year-old president of Stickman Simple Marketing in Cañon City, Colo., says he’s spent $10,000 on entrepreneurship and sales training over two decades and thinks some courses are little more than motivational speeches thinly masking sales pitches. “These guys all tap into the idea that everybody has something inside of them that they’re doing the world a disservice by not sharing. Before you know it, you’re in a sales funnel that up-sells into $200 training and $1,997 product launches and $15,000 consulting contracts.”
Sarah Baldwin, 55, is vice president of marketing for Goodnighties, a sleepwear business in Huntsville, Ala. “Expert” small business training she sought out yielded only “mouth-droppingly stupid and vintage 1980 advice” and, yes, up-selling, she says.
Scott Morgan, president of 4West Communications in Bordentown, N.J., was similarly disappointed with training he took before opening the grant- and copy-writing company a year ago. “I found the information general and no more insightful than anything you could Google and find for free,” says Morgan, 41. “I’ve also attended some marketing webinars and I often end up walking away with the thought that the people giving them are looking more to establish themselves as personalities than to really help.”
BUY LOCAL AND SAVE
Local communities have a vested interest in successful local businesses and usually offer free or low-cost help for aspiring entrepreneurs. “Seek out your local chamber or your industry organization,” Lonning says. “It’s their job to find resources and sponsor workshops for their members, and they will bring in good people who’ve been screened to provide education and not just sell their stuff.” If you choose to pay for training, steer clear of rosy marketing materials and look at course descriptions to see whether content will be useful and applicable. “You might get far more out of going to a procurement conference, where you can take step-by-step workshops and meet with government buyers, than you would out of learning a whole lot of academic theory,” she says.
Tilery investigated free courses but says she was unimpressed. She closely vetted the paid training she took, however, opting for proven brands and a local university where she could network. She read online biographies of teachers and clicked links to check out their backgrounds. When one program wanted Tilery to submit her business plan up front, she got suspicious and backed off.
Phil Holland, the entrepreneur and philanthropist who founded My Own Business two decades ago, structures his online courses so entrepreneurs get a full complement of basic business know-how. “Entrepreneurs don’t know what they don’t know, so if they’re just searching online for subjects they’re interested in, there’s a good chance they’re going to miss some important steps,” he says. Would-be entrepreneurs should look for teachers who have been in business themselves: “Get an experienced person who can share the mistakes they’ve made when their feet were in the fire,” Holland advises.
When Rick Martinez got the idea to bottle his red sangria, he spent three years researching entrepreneurship within the beverage industry. “I didn’t use any specific course but I read up on stories of other startups, followed online bloggers and analyzed what they were doing, and reached out to as many people as possible online and asked them questions,” says Martinez, founder of Señor Sangria in Maplewood, N.J.
Baldwin wound up at her local library checking out books on website development and search engine optimization, which proved far more helpful than the so-called expert advice she found online, she says: “Everybody gets into business thinking there’s some black mystery box out there, and you have to pay somebody to tell you how to open it. The truth is, business involves putting the pieces of a puzzle together, and you just have to sit down and figure out how to do it.”