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Agency a small business resource

If you own a small business the state has experts to coach you to take it to the next level. If you're thinking about starting a business, the state wants to provide you with the information you need for a solid business foundation.

The go-to state agency for help is the Small Business Development Center. It is a unit of the West Virginia Development Office.

Kristina Oliver heads the center. She established and operated a small business before she became director of the organization in December 2009.

"Having been on the other side of the desk, as it were, one of my goals here is to be more entrepreneurial and business friendly," she said.

Although the center has 12 offices around the state, Oliver doesn't like the idea of publishing a map because it implies you have to go to an office for assistance.

"Traditionally the SBDC had been organized in regions," she said. "Every center served a region. But we've been focused on creating a statewide network."

Now each of the organization's experts carries the title of business coach. The coaches are expected to get out of the office and meet with entrepreneurs whenever possible.

Also, "I want all of our coaches to cross-pollinate their skills to benefit the client they're working with," Oliver explained. "I want our coaches to partner to give the small business exactly what they need.

"If a client is working with a coach in Charleston and needs the expertise of a coach in the Eastern Panhandle, I expect the Charleston coach to contact the coach in the Eastern Panhandle and ask, 'Can we collaborate?' And of course they will."

One of the center's primary outreach initiatives is its toll-free "Business Ask Me!" telephone line (1-888 982-7232).

When it was started, one person was assigned to take the calls. "Now we have it on a revolving schedule throughout our coaching system," Oliver said. "It's good for the coach to be able to hear some different types of things. Our goal is to try to make it so the odds are good of getting a real, live voice. Of course sometimes you have to leave a message. We return calls within 24 hours."

A caller in need of specialized information may be referred to one of the business coaches. But if a caller is thinking of establishing a business and seeks basic information, they'll be referred to the Three-step Jump Start video, available on the organization's website (http://wvsbdc.org/

Jumpstart).

The video explains the SDBC and what it does; recommends the viewer attend a workshop at a field office where business fundamentals are explained; and recommends the viewer make an appointment for a one-on-one session with a coach.

Oliver believes every business owner needs a coach and the relationship with the coach needs to be ongoing. "I know when I grew my business, I needed someone to bounce ideas off of, someone to help me understand financing. I've thought that if I had a coach I would have become successful more quickly."

"We have a lot of hard-working business men and women who have grown their businesses. They need business coaching to help them to the next level. The center brings that expertise to the table."

Oliver said that when she became director, "a majority of our callers asked, 'Can I get a grant?' The center does not provide grants or loans. We provide technical assistance."

The center is focusing on businesses that have the greatest growth potential, she said. Asked to describe them, Oliver said, "It's those who realize they need to have a solid management team. Those who have personal maturity skills to understand they don't know it all and need to seek out help. Those who realize they need to understand whether their product or service has a true market opportunity.

"You can have a fantastic idea, but if you don't have a customer base, you can't make money - you just have a hobby."

The center has an annual budget of about $2 million. A portion of the money comes from the U.S. Small Business Administration. The center is facing both state and federal potential budget cuts.

The organization has about 25 employees. Some work under cooperative agreements with other entities like the Charleston Area Alliance.

According to the center, it has coached more than 2,300 clients in the last two years, helped start 465 businesses, helped create and retain more than 3,100 jobs, helped entrepreneurs raise nearly $40 million, and helped small businesses access millions of dollars in federal awards and contracts.

Contact writer George Hohmann at business@dailymail.com or 304-348-4836.


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