Starting a business can be a daunting task.
First, the entrepreneur must determine whether there’s a market for his or her idea, then write a business plan. Obtaining financing follows. A suitable brick-and-mortar site must be located and/or a strong online presence built. Then, the entrepreneur must register with the IRS, buy insurance, hire and train employees, and promote-promote-promote.
Volunteers with the SCORE program want to help.
SCORE, aka the Service Corps of Retired Executives, is a nationwide network of volunteer business mentors — more than 10,000 volunteers in 300 chapters, including Skagit/Whatcom counties. SCORE is a resource partner of the U.S. Small Business Administration and, according to www.SCORE.org, has helped more than 11 million entrepreneurs nationwide since 1964.
Entrepreneurs who sought mentorship through SCORE’s Skagit/Whatcom chapter started 105 businesses and created 131 jobs in 2018, according to data provided by SCORE volunteer Dennis Davenport. In 2017, SCORE mentored entrepreneurs who started 122 businesses and created 162 new jobs.
“We don’t tell people their ideas won’t work, because we don’t know that,” said Rob Martin, founder and retired president of Chinook Enterprises. “We identify areas for them to think about … We help them think that through.”
SCORE’s services are free.
Davenport and Martin are training volunteers to serve as mentors in Anacortes; the Anacortes Chamber of Commerce is providing space for mentors and entrepreneurs to meet.
What’s required to be a mentor: A desire to give back to the community by sharing his or her business knowledge with the next crop of entrepreneurs.
Entrepreneurs who need help starting or growing a business can visit SCORE.org to get paired with a mentor — either Davenport, Martin or one of the new volunteers. Entrepreneurs can also participate in free live webinars every week and attend classes on a variety of small-business topics.
Webinar topics include:
• “Simple Social Media Must-Do’s for the Small-Business Owner”
• “5 Easy Marketing Tricks to Grow Your Business”
• “Developing a Marketing Strategy for Your Startup Business”
• “Savvy Branding Strategies to Build Your Customer Base”
• “Best Practices for Building a Winning Website”
Here’s what an entrepreneur can expect from a SCORE mentor:
He or she won’t be told an idea is bad or won’t work, Anacortes Chamber of Commerce President Stephanie Hamilton said. Employing the S.L.A.T.E. methodology — Suspend Judgment; Listen and Learn; Assess and Analyze; Test Ideas; and Set Expectations and Encourage the Dream — the mentor guides the entrepreneur so that the person can draw their own conclusions on whether to make the leap.
Martin said a mentor will ask questions to help the business person identify critical steps they may have overlooked. Davenport, a retired vice president of AT&T Wireless, added, “We ask questions you have to ask in any business in order to succeed. We help the client think through the repercussions of the decisions they’re going to have to make.”
The mentor will also guide the entrepreneur to information needed to be successful. “And we’ll follow up and ask, ‘What did you learn? Where are you going?’,” Martin said.
Examples of lessons learned:
• Martin once mentored an entrepreneur who thought she could assign all tasks to an employee from the outset. She learned the owner’s role in a new business is more hands-on. “There’s a huge amount of hard work that predates them making a lot of money,” he said. “It can take three to five years before you’re making money. Until then, you’re not losing money but you’re not making a lot of money either. You’re just treading water.”
• Another entrepreneur Martin mentored came to an unexpected conclusion, and an alternative.
“She had a product she was going to manufacture in a market that was already saturated with companies manufacturing the same product,” he said. “I couldn’t see how the twist she was putting on it was going to make it different than what was already out there. I asked her a whole bunch of questions, and she ultimately decided she didn’t have the horsepower to make it work right now.” She decided instead to team up with an existing manufacturer.
• The best mentors are listeners. Martin remembers a business mentor telling him that his ideas were bad and wouldn’t work. “I proved them wrong,” he said.
What emerged from Martin’s ideas in 1980 was Chinook Enterprises, a nonprofit social enterprise with a diverse portfolio: vocational assistance and employer support services; manufacturing and assembly for the aerospace, alternative energy, automotive, commercial and marine industries; and grounds maintenance services. Chinook’s clients include Boeing and local governments.
Martin sought out mentors that would listen and guide.
“I could talk to these guys about what to check on. They’d make sure I was doing this and not doing that. It was really valuable,” he said.