Monday, September 8, 2008

Sharing the ABCs of business

Sharing the ABCs of business
Center helps small companies flourish
By Richard Bammer
Article Launched: 09/07/2008 07:33:25

When Michael Cortez (left) launched his firm, TechPro Source, he turned to the Solano College Small Business Development Center for advice. Now his firm is thriving and he staffs it will full- and part-time employees including Nicole Hebert (right) and Chris Cannon. (Rick Roach / The Reporter)

With a weak, and sometimes skidding, national economy still making headlines, it can be daunting at best for someone to even think about starting, or expanding, a business.

But for those Solano County residents willing to venture - and possibly gain - a good first step is seeking out help from the Solano College Small Business Development Center in Fairfield.

"I had developed my business plan, but I needed a sounding board," said Michael Cortez, who, in 2006, founded TechPro Source, a technology support firm on Merchant Street in Vacaville.

So he met one-on-one with Charles Eason, director of the SBDC, on Campus Lane, near Solano Community College. "He gave me a lot of information to cut through the plans and streamline it."

Cortez admits that, at the time, his biggest shortcoming was effective "budget analysis, budgeting" and local marketing. So Eason gave him two big helpful boosts: 1) a spreadsheet, a computer program that organizes numbers into rows and columns, for figuring and making changes based on new data; and 2) statistics on the number of small businesses in the county.

Today, Cortez, who staffs his offices with three full-time and one part-time employee, counts some 200 companies - most of them other small businesses - as clients for his information technology service, including a Solano County city that he declined to name because the contract was signed just last week.

"I recommend the SBDC because it was a great resource" that was free, he said.

"For me, being a start-up, I was concerned. It got a business coach (his first move), but that was a mistake. The Small Business Development Center cut through all the nonsense that was going on through planning, marketing and budgets. I felt pretty confident meeting with them. It gave me the confidence to do what I needed to do."

More than anything, Eason said, people need to be aware that SBDC services are free.

"It's the best-kept secret out there," he added. "We don't have a large market, so people can come and receive one-on-one business advice."

Help for small business owners with existing businesses accounts for 60 percent of the center's activity, said Eason, who has managed the Campus Lane office, a stone's throw from Solano Community College, for six years.

It is one of 1,100 small business development centers nationwide, funded in part by the U.S. Small Business Administration, the California SBDC, the California community college system, state and local governments and, in some instances, local chambers of commerce. Eason, 44 and a resident of Green Valley, oversees two full-time and one part-time employee and an annual budget of $400,000. He said some 500 people each year use the center's services, which include affordable and free small-business assistance, counseling, technical help, training and a library.

"The SBDC helps the small business owner a lot of the time with technological help," said Eason, an Alabama native with an MBA from California State University, San Bernadino. "Sometimes they start it around their hobby. We can put together a business, marketing and financial plans."

Eason believes the SBDC has a direct hand in the economic well-being of Solano County and it is essential that businesses succeed.

"If you look at the statistics, small businesses create two-thirds of all jobs," he noted, defining a small business as one with 100 or fewer employees. "Ninety-eight percent of all businesses (locally and nationwide) are classified as small business. They're the economic engine of the economy. Right now the emphasis is on job retention."

While the benefits of starting a small business include self-determination, the pitfalls can be serious if a person is not prepared for the responsibility, said Eason, who has been a SBDC director for more than 13 years.

"There are risks," he said. "You sometimes have to take capital and that can mean putting your home on the line. It takes a while to reach a break-even point. You can increase your chances of success by taking some SBDC classes and do a little planning."

Which is exactly what Vacaville business woman Danielle Gish did in 2005.

"No, I wasn't scared to start my own business," said Gish, owner of Vogue Salon & Spa on Nut Tree Court. "I had worked in the salon for about 14 years. The (former) owner's health was so bad, we pretty much ran it for her."

For Gish, who started her business in 2006, the most helpful lessons from SBDC training was learning to understand profit-and-loss statements. Accounting was her weak spot as a small-business woman, she admitted.

"I've referred many people to the SBDC," Gish said. "They'll keep helping you after you go. I still meet with a counselor throughout the year."


What: Solano College Small Business Development Center

Where: 360 Campus Lane, suite 102, Fairfield

Telephone: 864-3382

Web site:

Director: Charles D. Eason (e-mail:

Number of employees: Two full-time, one part-time

Annual budget: $400,000

Affiliations: U.S. Small Business Administration, Community College Chancellor's Office, state, county and city governments

Number of clients per year: Approximately 500

Services: Affordable and free small-business assistance, including counseling, technical help, training and a library

Next classes: How To Start a Small Business, Wednesday; cost: $25. How to Write a Business Plan, Saturday; cost: $45. NxLevel, a 12-week entrepreneurial training program, Tuesdays beginning Sept. 16; cost: $275 per person (includes books)

Source: Solano College SBDC

Reporter staff writer Richard Bammer can also be reached at 453-8164