Say you have a great idea for a new business and you’re dying to get it off the ground. You have thoroughly researched the concept, found a perfect business location and even started shopping for office furniture.
Business consultant Carmen Sunda has three words of advice: “Don’t sign anything.”
Too many hopeful entrepreneurs jump headlong into costly commitments before they fully understand what they’re getting into, she says. If they’re not careful, they’ll find their business burning through cash at warp speed and plunging toward failure.
“Don’t sign any leases or purchase agreements until you’re really sure your business plan makes sense,” Sunda advises. Helping people reach that point is her bread and butter.
Sunda is the director of the Louisiana Small Business Development Center in New Orleans, which is part of a nationwide network of small business assistance centers that help entrepreneurs start new businesses or grow existing ones. Every day, she and a team of a dozen or so experienced advisers work with startups and existing businesses in seven area parishes to guide their progress and help them stay on track toward realistic business goals.
The center, which is in its 30th year of providing assistance to small businesses, recently got a big pat on the back for its efforts. The U.S. Small Business Administration presented it with the Small Business Development Center Excellence and Innovation Award, ranking it No. 1 among about 1,000 centers in the country.
Sunda, who went to Washington, D.C., to receive the award, says she was stunned when she first got word the local center had been singled out. “We’re just doing our job and focusing on the small businesses,” she says.
The assistance the center offers – free of charge – runs the gamut of what an entrepreneur needs to either get an enterprise up and running or plan an expansion. Finding access to capital is a high priority, and the consultants can help identify sources ranging from banks to nonprofit lenders and state financing programs.
“This is a really great time to be in business and start a business because there are so many financing options,” Sunda says. “We like to say that if we can’t help you find some good choices and get financed, it’s not possible.”
The business consultants provide their services through one-on-one counseling in locations spread across Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard, Plaquemines, St. Charles, St. James and St. John the Baptist parishes. The center also periodically offers classroom training, in partnership with other providers, to accommodate groups of entrepreneurs.
Initial services typically involve guiding entrepreneurs through planning, organizing and registering a new business.
Counseling often continues with advice on marketing and managing the business and planning for future growth.
While startups might seem the most likely candidates for help from the small business assistance center, Sunda says 70 percent of clients are existing companies looking to expand. The consultants try to help such clients understand all the challenges and implications of an expansion before they take on debt.
Say a small business owner wants to add a second location and at the same time hopes to buy equipment that will help increase sales at the current location. “We might suggest that they buy the equipment first and get their sales up so they can prove to a lender that sales will increase, then they can look at a second location,” Sunda says. “We’ll try to talk them off a cliff.”
Many of the center’s startup clients are individuals who have worked in an industry for some years and want to move out on their own, or they already have experience operating a business and are launching their second or third company.
The Louisiana Small Business Development Center has taken on a higher profile in recent years, owing to the way it stepped in to help in the wake of devastating hurricanes.
“Because we’ve focused for so long on getting out there in the field and working with businesses impacted by (hurricanes) Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Isaac, we’ve become disaster experts,” Sunda says. “We’ve become good at risk management, risk mitigation, disaster preparedness and disaster recovery.”
The center used this expertise to help develop a statewide business disaster program that Sunda says has become a model for other states. The Small Business Administration has tapped the center to help train other center staff around the country.
Sunda believes one of the local center’s greatest strengths is its access to the resources of local colleges and universities. The consultants collaborate with Loyola University New Orleans, Delgado Community College, Southern University at New Orleans and Xavier University of Louisiana. These partnerships enable them to reach entrepreneurs through an extensive education and training network that touches businesses and industries throughout the region.
The consulting team also has developed strong ties with area chambers, economic development organizations, banks and other lenders. These entitites not only regularly refer clients to the center, but in many cases provide space in their offices where the consultants can meet with clients, so clients don’t have to travel far from home to access the service.
Since Sunda joined the Louisiana Small Business Development Center in 2003, she and her team have served some 9,000 clients, helped train 18,000 individuals and assisted in securing more than $120 million in capital for area entrepreneurs. The center estimates that 6,000 area jobs have been created or retained through its assistance.
What an Entrepreneur Can Expect
The Louisiana Small Business Development Center is funded in part through an agreement with the U.S. Small Business Administration, Louisiana Economic Development, Delgado Community College and Loyola, Southern and Xavier universities. It provides all of its services free of charge.
To access services, an individual can call 831-3730 for an appointment. Online registration for counseling, technical assistance and training resources is also available at lsbdc.org.
Center Director Carmen Sunda says the first phone call by a prospective client usually involves a brief assessment during which a consultant will ask questions to determine what type of assistance is appropriate. Depending on the results, the consultant may schedule a one-on-one meeting, or suggest attending a workshop about starting a business, writing a business plan or financing, among other topics.
Whatever the starting point, each client eventually is paired with an individual consultant who will help the entrepreneur with next steps, from the business plan and financing options to permitting procedures, tax requirements, business location and legal matters.
“We work collaboratively with the client,” Sunda says. “They come in for a private consulting session, and at the end they will know what their next steps are. We’re going to help them lay it out.”
No matter what the business or how much research an entrepreneur may have done on an idea, Sunda advises seeking advice from the center before beginning to search for financing.
“Come and get the free assistance,” she says, “before you sink your money in.”