They may not always have tech smarts, but they can still make your small business a whole lot smarter.
They are America's senior business leaders, and some 10,000 of them volunteer their time with SCORE, the Service Corps of Retire Executives. In partnership with the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), SCORE's 389 local chapters offer free workshops as well as free one-on-one counseling on a range of business topics.
SCORE is not the most technologically savvy organization in the world. Most of its volunteers, after all, hit their stride in business well before technology became the defining characteristic that it is today. Nonetheless, some of today's fastest-growing technology companies owe their success at least in part to wisdom gleaned through their SCORE mentors.
Take for instance Lou Honick. As a 20-something co-founder of the Newark, Del.-based web hosting enterprise HostMySite.com, he turned to SCORE for help in business management and organization. "We were looking to draw on their experience in managing people, motivating people," he explained. "We had 15 people at that time and now we have 50 people. We really needed to put in place an organizational structure that could accommodate the kind of growth that we were expecting."
Honick and his partner Neil Heuer already knew plenty about technology. What they found at SCORE was a former executive from Gateway computers who was able to show them the human side of the business. "He had a perspective on managing technology workers, who sometimes have some quirks that you don't find in other professions," said Honick. "He talked to use about the different incentive plans, the different organizational structures that allow them to thrive."
You won't find that kind of expertise at every SCORE chapter. Places like San Francisco and New York City can likely muster their share of former executives who know their way around a PC. But in rural Bucks County, Pa., "our particular chapter does not have too much in the way of technology counselors," said volunteer Ben Stahl. There's one guy there who helped write the original Cobal programming language, but that was some time back.
Still, even the Bucks County SCORE has not shied away from utilizing technology in the aid of aspiring entrepreneurs, with some members offering advice via email as often as every other day.
Moreover, the technological expertise of San Francisco is easily available to entrepreneurs in Bucks County via SCORE's extensive national network. A business owner seeking networking know-how, for example, can get connected by phone or email to anyone in the SCORE system who might posses the relevant experience.
In more metropolitan chapters, technology has become an increasingly prevalent part of SCORE's offerings. In Washington, D.C. for instance, a recent workshop promised to instruct participants on the finer points of "Getting Your Small Business Web Site to Make Big Profits."
"In the 'How to Start a Business' workshop, we offer a one-hour segment on things to think about in terms of web sites and how they might help on a basic level," said Arnie Westphal, a volunteer counselor in the Washington, D.C. chapter. "We bring in people who are webmaster experts. A lot of them are still in business, but they donate their time to do this."
Most often, though, people don't come to SCORE seeking an upgrade in their tech savvy. Like Honick, they come looking for guidance to transform their existing tech know-how into a working business venture.
"In this market there are a lot of technology people who have been laid off from big companies, who now are looking to start off on their own, doing what they had been doing in those bigger companies," said Westphal. SCORE can help on this count. "We have people who retired from IBM who have been involved in technology marketing. We have technical marketing people who can talk about that, and we have people we are in business who can help with technical problems or philosophical questions about the need for technology."
Thus, while SCORE can offer sometimes substantial tech advice, it is really in this other area that the organization excels: That is, in its ability to help entrepreneurs in the technological realm (or in any other area, for that matter) to get moving in the right direction.
"We counsel technology-based business all the time, but they are not coming to us for technology help," said Raymond Smith, chairman of the Delaware SCORE chapter. "It doesn't make any difference what the business is. Many of the principles are the same."
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