Sometimes running a company seems like a very lonely job, especially when confronting a problem or a big decision. That’s why it’s good to get help from people who have been in your situation. Luckily, a bunch of organizations exist to give advice and technical assistance to budding businesses.
There’s some evidence that businesses seeking out structured counseling programs have better outcomes than the business community as a whole. And these support services are like a web: Once you find one, it’s easy to get connected to others.
Here are some of the most useful resources available to small business owners—and many of them are free, or close to it:
Small Business Development Centers. The largest and most comprehensive source of support to small businesses is the network of Small Business Development Centers. The U.S. Small Business Administration and the states jointly fund these offices, often through colleges and universities.
SBDCs offer one-on-one counseling from people with long experience in aiding small business owners. They often offer former bankers, insurance, or real estate brokers, or other consultants. SBDCs have a reputation for a disciplined and analytical approach to helping established owners solve problems, and an emphasis on developing basic business skills.
Most centers run regular workshops on nuts-and-bolts topics like starting up, planning, financial literacy—even on using Quickbooks, the software that allows businesses to manage payroll, sales, and other business functions. Many SBDCs also maintain business reference libraries for developing marketing and operating plans, and they can often point you toward some of the other resources below.
SCORE. What used to be called the Service Corps of Retired Executives may be the best-known of the small-business mentoring and counseling programs. About 11,000 retired and current business owners and executives volunteer to advise entrepreneurs, or people who want be one.
Generally, SCORE tries to match clients up with executives who have expertise in the same, or a related, industry, or who have the skills the entrepreneurs need. The organization also runs weekly webinars and posts other helpful information online at www.score.org.
Other government and nonprofits. In addition to funding the SBDCs and SCORE, the SBA (often in concert with other federal agencies) supports a network of assistance centers for specific small-business audiences, including women, veterans, exporters, and government contractors. Meanwhile, state and local governments and economic development authorities often provide their own support for small companies, including helping to navigate laws and regulations.
Many of them run or support incubators for young companies, which typically provide office space, technical support, and other counseling—plus sometimes financing, as well. And local libraries often manage a range of business references, including databases that can fuel marketing or operating plans.
Trade associations and business groups. Though trade organizations are typically known for their lobbying work, many also nurture business development with a mix of online material and meetings, seminars, and mixers both on the national and local level.
For example, the National Restaurant Association dedicates a section of its website (available to members and the public alike) to restaurant management, and its executive study groups meet regularly in person and online. Finally, many state restaurant associations host their own events and webinars where members share ideas. State and local Chambers of Commerce also sponsor networking and other events.
Ad-hoc networking groups. Business owners often organize their own meetings. Search Meetup or Eventbrite in bigger cities to find—or form—your own group. SBDCs and local chambers often keep track of these, too.