Counseling, mentoring, resources and more for small businesses

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Small-businesses owners in Eastern Pennsylvania don't have to clean out their bank accounts to take advantage of some of the free resources in the region.

From counsel to training to lists of resources, there is plenty of opportunity to learn without necessarily denting the bottom line.

One such resource is Lehigh Valley Service Corps of Retired Executives, where retired businessman Glenn Cheney mentors startups and struggling small-business owners who call the volunteer organization for assistance.

"I have counseled people who wanted to start RV parks, bike shops, restaurants, retail shops and even biological testing labs. … The type of people that come to us defy description. It is everything you can imagine," said Cheney, who is one of dozens of business professionals, retired and not, providing free counseling, mentoring and resources as part of SCORE.

Cheney said that he has several key pieces of advice for business owners, including first finding your target market and, once you find that market, putting the business name out there.

Then, it is equally important to create a good business plan, stay up on the latest industry reports (one member of SCORE can supply business owners with such reports), get to know your competition and the services they offer and go online to do research.

Cheney recommended visiting the Lehigh Valley SCORE website and check out the most recent entrepreneur guide posted on the site under templates and tools.

"SCORE can provide direction on where to find this stuff to build your business plan, but we will not write your business plan," Cheney said. "However, we will certainly look at it, and tell you what areas need work."

GUIDANCE

The Greater Lehigh Valley has plenty of resources for business owners who may be just starting out or perhaps struggling to stay afloat. It is important to establish contact with people who are aware what resources are available, since there may be times a business owner may not have access to online resources or have the time to visit the library, where resources are plentiful.

Bethlehem-based Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp. is one organization instrumental in guiding businesses. Its website has a comprehensive list with links to free or affordable resources.

There are links to organizations geared to providing assistance to small businesses, and links that give information on courses, workshops and sessions that are designed to guide entrepreneurs.

MANY AVENUES

Robert Bilheimer, director of business retention and expansion at LVEDC, said there are many small business-oriented organizations in the region, including the Small Business Development Center, Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Northeastern Pennsylvania, Manufacturers Resource Center, Charter Partners, Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley, Small Business Council and Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce.

"We have ramped up our website, and it is our mission to connect business owners, point them in the appropriate direction because we want them to stay here in the Lehigh Valley and grow," said Bilheimer, adding that in his experience, businesses owners call with questions about location, capital and workforce issues.

"We administer Small Business Administration loans here but there are other places that you can go. The Community Action Committee, for instance, has micro-loans to startup businesses," Bilheimer said.

In Reading, Mike Rivera, assistant vice president of small business services for the Greater Reading Chamber of Commerce & Industry, said that Berks County has many small-business resources.

He said he sends businesses to organizations that include Kutztown University's SBDC, Latino Business Resource Center, Community First Fund and Innovation Transfer Network.

"The chamber's website can offer a lot of great resources without having to make calls, but there are really a lot of resources and programs out there," Rivera said. "Social networking, face-to-face contact are all very important. It is a lot easier to network than do cold calling."

At Ben Franklin Technology Partners in Bethlehem, Laura Eppler, director of marketing, said early stage companies with an emphasis in the technology field can contact Ben Franklin Partners for a free consultation session and financial assistance.

"We help early stage companies through the loan process, but we also offer endorsements to get investors to take a second look at the company," she said.

SEMINARS, EXPOS

Also in Bethlehem, associate director Mary Beth Zingone of the Lehigh University SBDC said that the center, aside from helping business owners with their business plans and grant funding, frequently offers seminars, expos and workshops.

In the fall, the Small Business Administration hosts a business resource expo, usually held at the ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks in Bethlehem.

"There are lots of seminars going on or coming up, some on compliance issues, international trade issues, government marketing seminars, and our monthly First Step program detailing licensing and business funding," Zingone said.

Alan Jennings, executive director of CACLV, said the committee helps about 20 to 30 businesses get started per year. It has made loans to about a dozen businesses each year and also provides technical assistance for entrepreneurial dreams, he added.

"We are working with people who are not connected through normal mainstream systems," Jennings said. "Almost all of them are low- to moderate-income or located in a low- to moderate-income area or are people of color."

These businesses include those in the retail, service and manufacturing industries, he said.

Lehigh Valley Business staff writer Brian Pedersen contributed to this report.

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