Entrepreneurs finding path to expansion in education

Perhaps your business ran well when you started it.

A couple of years later, though, your work force and your sales are multiplying — and so are the issues you face in serving your customers and accommodating your employees’ needs.

For many entrepreneurs who reach such crossroads, one answer can be found in continuing education. They want additional training to guide them through the rough spots that come with an expanding business.

Options abound for professionals on the hunt for fresh business skills. Getting the most out of continuing education requires knowing what’s available in the market, and how much it will cost.

Small-business consultants say there’s a sweet spot in the business-startup arc during which entrepreneurs should think about seeking additional training.

Plenty of business owners know they need help launching a new company, and businesses that have made it past the five-year mark are often in growth mode and have worked out their biggest operational questions.

Problems generally emerge in the period between startup and maturation — the two years to five years after a company opens, said Anna Seifert, operations manager of the Nevada Microenterprise Initiative and project director of the Women’s Business Center in Las Vegas. That “emerging” phase is a potential trap for many business owners.

“For most people who go into business, all they can think of from the start is getting to that growth phase (in five years),” Seifert said. “They forget to plan for in between startup and their growth phase. They leave a big gap. That’s why 85 percent of businesses fail in their first three to five years — they didn’t plan for that emerging phase. They flounder because they didn’t plan.”

Michael Waters, president of Phase 1 Sports in Las Vegas, has attended training through Siefert’s group several times. He said continuing education has been essential to the growth of his athletic-scholarship business.

“It’s helped me learn about expansion,” Waters said. “I’ve been trying to progress from a small business that I started and ran for three or four years on my own to bringing in a team and hiring people to handle different parts of the business so we can grow.”

For most entrepreneurs, concentrating on a few key areas can pay major dividends for their business.

Just about any owner or manager of a smaller concern could benefit from even rudimentary accounting training, said René Colen, a business counselor with the Service Corps of Retired Executives.

Colen has guided a number of small-business operators whose companies were doing well and began to stumble. The usual culprit: Their administrative processes weren’t equipped to properly manage accounting functions as their enterprise flourishes.

“Things start to get out of hand,” Colen said. “They don’t understand why they’re doing so well businesswise, but they don’t have any money in the bank.”

Because financial oversight touches so many aspects of a business, there are benefits to streamlining and upgrading fiscal skills, he said. Tracking numbers properly can allow business owners to identify their best customers and vendors — and their worst — and enable swift redirection toward a company’s more-lucrative elements.

Inventory management also hobbles many small businesses, particularly companies in manufacturing and retail. The flow of goods and services changes as a company expands, and that can challenge many managers.

Marketing, advertising and sales are also essential to a broad range of businesses, and they’re top issues that drive entrepreneurs into SCORE’s offices for guidance.

“People spend a lot of money and they wonder why they’re not getting a return, or they don’t spend any money and they wonder why they’re not getting customers,” he said.

Other concerns, such as intellectual-property rights or labor law, are often prime candidates for outsourcing, because they don’t often affect a company’s broader survival. Rather than developing intensive knowledge in such areas, entrepreneurs should consider hiring consultants to deal with patents or to write or review human resources manuals.

Company owners can establish their own list of continuing education priorities by weighing their particular professional strengths. Ask where your time is best-used, Craft said.

Perhaps any consultant can handle your company’s accounting, for example, but only you know the intricate marketing nuances your product requires.

Re-examine your business plan as well, Siefert said. Your company’s road map can indicate where you’ll need to focus your efforts. If your company’s entire future rests on protecting an original idea, for example, then it might be time to bone up on intellectual-property law after all, on top of retaining an attorney. A business that needs to triple its inventory load to meet growth goals will require an owner well-versed in supervising the stockpiling of goods.

Any entrepreneur considering continuing education will need to determine whether the expense is worth it.

And there are major differences in the prices business owners will pay to upgrade their knowledge base.

Some of the classes, workshops and counseling offered through local nonprofit groups are free, while courses available at local universities and colleges will cost.

Consultants say free classes won’t replace tuition-bearing seminars.

“They hit different pieces,” Colen said. “Schools like CSN, UNLV, Nevada State College, they offer accounting courses, and we don’t try to compete with that.”

SCORE’s financial-management training is more introductory, Colen said. It’s designed to familiarize businesspeople with basic accounting concepts and terms, and show them how software can help them track business.

“We won’t make them experts on QuickBooks, but we make them comfortable enough to deal with an accountant, or to go sign up for a UNLV class,” Colen said. “Our classes are complementary (to colleges’ classes).”

Nonprofits’ seminars also differ in their practical nature, Siefert said.

Where an accounting course at a college might delve into financial theory and overarching fiscal-management themes, a workshop through the Nevada Microenterprise Initiative, SCORE or the Nevada Small Business Development Center will deal with hands-on applications of specific accounting practices.

“Really, a lot of people need both types of education,” Siefert said. “They might have been to business school, and they might have diplomas, but now it’s time to take that knowledge and apply it to real life.”

Where nonprofit services are especially valuable is for small companies without significant capital to invest in continuing education, Colen said. An upstart firm with three employees and light gross sales will have a hard time finding consultants for fees they can afford, so free help is virtually their only option.

Craft advises businesses to look for learning opportunities at all levels, but she’s especially keen on going through SCORE, the Nevada Microenterprise Initiative and the Nevada Small Business Development Center for beginning help. Don’t judge their value by their low cost.

“Inexpensive doesn’t mean the classes are not comprehensive,” Craft said.

Jennifer Robison writes for the Business Press’ sister publication, the Las Vegas Review-Journal. She can be reached at jrobison@reviewjournal.com or 380-4512.

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