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Where Entrepreneurs Go for Help

Michael Ferrera Jr. is looking for new clients for his custom clothing company: "I love my business, I love my margins, and I have great relationships with my customers. But I need to find new customers and determine where and how to go about that," he says.

Would-be fashion designer Diedra Wilson wants feedback on her line of maternity clothes: "I have what I think is a good concept, but I wanted to get an evaluation of the idea," she says.

Consultant Jennifer Sabin needs advice on how to nudge her clients outside the box: "Some business owners are overly attached to their prices, and they need to get outside themselves and realize that if they created their infrastructure, they can change it, " she says.

All three entrepreneurs spent one day last week at a "Small Business Speed Coaching Test Drive" in Anaheim, Calif. They attended workshops, met one-on-one with volunteer counselors from the nonprofit organization SCORE, and had time to network. The one-day event, part of a series of conferences held since 2007 across the country, drew more than 300 attendees.

Energy, Enthusiasm, and Excitement

"There are few people here today who aren't talking about their need for new customers," says Ken Yancey Jr., SCORE's CEO, during a break in the activities. "They want help marketing their products and services so they can replace lost customers."

Cash flow challenges, tight credit markets, and obsolete—or nonexistent—business plans were also hot topics at the Anaheim event, which is a marketing opportunity for its sponsors and is offered free to attendees. Similar events are scheduled later this year in Chicago, Tampa, Washington, and Portland, Ore.

The event also provides a snapshot into current entrepreneurial challenges and attitudes, attracting both established business owners and entrepreneurial "newbies." Last week's event brought out many laid-off workers who are casting about for freelance business niches, says Yancey. "Corporate America has laid off thousands of workers, but their job responsibilities have not gone away. Somebody needs to pick up those outsourced jobs," he says.

What surprised him most, however, was not the plethora of startup entrepreneurs but the energy, enthusiasm, and optimism of the attendees, some of whom had traveled from out of state. "There's an excitement that's contagious with small business owners. These are individuals with the propensity not just to survive but to do well for themselves and their companies," he says.

See What Sells on the Web

Wilson, who spent her 30 minutes with SCORE counselor William B. Morland, a retired businessman, works two jobs in education. But having grown up with an entrepreneurial background (her parents owned and operated a private school), she says she's always nurtured the idea of having her own business. While she initially inquired about how to approach retailers designs for maternity clothes, Morland encouraged her to back up.

"You have to get some inventory made up at low cost, set up a Web site, and put your designs up there to see what sells," he advises. "If you can get some sales volume going, that will be a selling point when you are ready to approach retailers." They discussed the importance of knowing what kinds of profit margins retailers expect, how to work with independent sales representatives, how much startup capital to amass, and writing a business plan, among several other business topics that Wilson says she hadn't yet considered.

"This has been really, really helpful," she says, as Morland schedules her up for a follow-up appointment with a counselor whose background is in apparel. Before she goes, however, he adds another piece of advice: "Don't quit your day job."

Ferrera, a tall young man in an impressive suit, started working for himself eight years ago when he founded Michael Ferrera Clothing in Claremont, Calif. A year ago, he began focusing exclusively on the custom side of his business, bringing in clients mostly by attending conferences that draw the high-powered, wealthy men who can pay extra to have their suits custom-made. In this economy, however, it's harder to find clients, and Ferrera is looking for more help from SCORE.

Finding a Mentor

He has met twice with counselors who have given him advice on specific challenges, but wants to establish an ongoing relationship with a counselor who can get more involved in his business. Counselor Bill Gobbell refers him to the group's advisory board service, which provides a longer-term volunteer who can meet with him weekly or monthly and become more like a mentor. "That sounds really good," Ferrera says.

Yancey says many entrepreneurs wait much longer than Ferrera to seek outside help, often to the point where it's tough to help them get out of financial trouble. "I just saw some clients who have been in business 20 years but they still don't have a good handle on their finances," says counselor Edward Reardon. "They are servicing a big mortgage, with a 10% interest rate, on their property and meanwhile they're only showing $3,000 profit this year."

Sabin, whose consulting firm, The Growth Management Coach, is based in South Florida, often provides similar service to her clients that SCORE is providing during its speed coaching sessions. But although she's referred clients to SCORE for 20 years, she says, she's never used their services herself. "Today's the first time I booked an appointment for myself," the former stock trader admits. She heard about the California event while in town working at a client's site. "I figured I'd better take advantage of my own advice, finally," she says.

Karen E. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues.

Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues.

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