We all know that there is no such thing as a free meal, but when it comes to mentoring for small-business owners there may be something that comes close: SCORE’s free and confidential mentoring program.
With 13,000 mentors nationwide, working in 364 chapters, teaching more than 500 skills, SCORE is a nonprofit association dedicated to helping small businesses get off the ground, so they grow and achieve their goals through education and mentorship.
“We have been doing this for nearly 50 years,” says Arlington County, VA’s SCORE counselor Joe Clarke.
We recently had the opportunity to talk to him about his highly useful service.
Be Inkandescent: What mistakes do you commonly see entrepreneurs make?
Joe Clarke: The approach used by most small-business owners as they develop their expertise and experience is, simply put, “trial and error.” And for too many, the emphasis is on “error.”
A number of vendors will coach entrepreneurs in various aspects of running a business, and you can certainly hire any number of business consultants to get you started. However, you should really look into one free resource that can save you time and money. The resource is a volunteer group that goes by the acronym SCORE.
Be Inkandescent: What kind of business experience do SCORE mentors have?
Joe Clarke: SCORE is staffed by individuals who have started businesses, grown them, and been successful. They have also failed at businesses and shut them down. They’ve experienced the full life cycle of creating and growing small businesses. The mission of SCORE is to mentor small business owners as they start and grow their business.
Be Inkandescent: Specifically, how does SCORE help budding entrepreneurs?
Joe Clarke: SCORE does that a few different ways:
- One-on-one counseling sessions. Mentees can have as many counseling sessions as they want. Bring the mentors any business question. Their pledge is to offer objective, unbiased advice based on their experience and the best practices of SCORE. Many small-business owners use SCORE as a sounding board, bringing questions they are considering. They could ask their compatriots, but they may be concerned about receiving self-serving answers.
- Workshops that cover a wide range of topics. There’s a nominal charge for these workshops, but everything else from SCORE is free of charge. The workshops cover topics as basic as “How to Start a Business” or “How to Write a Business Plan.” There are workshops on more advanced topics, such as social media marketing and protecting intellectual property. The local Chapter specializes in government contracting so they have many workshops on the federal government’s procurement process and set-aside programs for government procurements.
- Matching mentors / mentees. Whatever type of question you bring to SCORE, SCORE will try to match you with a counselor with specialized experience in a related industry or business function. If you have a general business question—such as how to develop your financial plan or how to structure your business—any SCORE counselor will be able to help you.
Be Inkandescent: What if a question deals with a specific issue, such as the best way to prepare for outside investors in your business?
Joe Clarke: The SCORE counselor may need to bring in other expertise. They can poll the local Chapter of about 50 counselors who cover the Washington, DC, metropolitan area and see if they can identify someone with the appropriate background. They also have the ability to reach out to the 13,000 SCORE counselors across the country to find the appropriate expertise.
Be Inkandescent: Are there any caveats?
Joe Clarke: Yes, there are some general cautions to be aware of for the use of a SCORE counselor. All of the SCORE services (with the exception of the workshops) are free of charge. All of the sessions are confidential—they will never shop your business plan to competitors. The SCORE counselor and his or her immediate family cannot profit from the session in any way—there will not be any hidden agenda.
SCORE counselors sign a pledge every year certifying that they will follow these rules of conduct, and they take these responsibilities very seriously. You should be aware of the protections they offer.
Be Inkandescent: SCORE works with the US Small Business Administration, right?
Joe Clarke: Yes, SCORE is a resource partner of the SBA, the federal government agency charged with making small businesses viable in the United States. The SBA manages programs such as the loan guarantee program. In that program, if your loan request is approved and you default on the loan, the SBA will guarantee a percentage of the loan to the lender.
The SBA also runs programs for federal government acquisitions that are set-aside for small businesses. As resource partners of the SBA, SCORE counselors are aware of the SBA programs and can point you in the right direction to get answers. However, you need to get the answers directly from the SBA—SCORE can’t speak for the government.
Be Inkandescent: In addition to SCORE, where else do you recommend entrepreneurs go for help?
Joe Clarke: SCORE is just one of a number of resources available for small-business owners. They all offer free services and can help you through the process of getting your business up and running, or reaching that next level of operation.
You certainly have the option of trying out your ideas on your own, and it’s clear that many small-business owners do just that. But you might save some time and money by finding out what has worked (or not worked) for others. The decision of how to run your business will still be yours, but it may help you sleep at night just to talk it over with someone who’s been there before you.
Be Inkandescent: Thanks so much for your help, Joe. In the last five decades, SCORE has helped millions of small-business owners—and we know your organization will continue to help millions more.
Joe Clarke: Thanks for spreading the word about SCORE! Your readers can find the locations providing counseling (there is a main office and eight branch locations) as well as bios for the counselors at the Chapter’s web site. You can also call the main office at 202-272-0390.
About Joe Clarke
An experienced consultant specializing in IT Service Management, primarily in the public sector, Clarke’s specific focus has been on the methodologies needed to assess, design, and implement improved processes for the delivery of IT services. He is interested in helping organizations reach higher levels of process maturity, especially in large, complex environments. He is a past president of Joe Clarke, LLC, a former director at Gartner Consulting, and a former senior consultant at Applied Management Systems.
Since 2007, Clarke has provided business mentoring to small-business owners through SCORE. He now runs the program at Arlington Economic Development.