March 26, 2018
FOCUS: Small Business

SBDC connects entrepreneurs with free consulting services

Photos | Contributed
Photos | Contributed
Shelly Koehler of the Connecticut Small Business Development Center discussing new design options with client Linda Longobardi of Regift the Wrap LLC. 
Gregory Lewis of the Connecticut Small Business Development Center counseling Bill and Peggy Pastyrnak at their brewery, Counterweight Brewing Co. in Hamden.
Emily Carter, State Director, Connecticut Small Business Development Center

When Jason Bittner, founder and CEO of Triple Helix Corp., first opened his East Hartford software and information management company in 2004, he was not only fully invested in his business dream but equally invested in getting solid business advice as a small-business entrepreneur.

"I was paying a consultant between $500 and $1,000 a month to help guide and direct me because I was serious about the growth [of my business] and was trying to get the best advice I could," he said. "But as a startup, it was cost-prohibitive."

Over the past 14 years, as his company has grown from a one-man operation to a team of eight, including double-digit revenue growth over the past five years, Bittner has come to rely on a new resource for business advice: the state's Small Business Development Centers (SBDC).

"The amount of time my [SBDC] advisor spent with me was double or triple that of my consultant and the services were free," he said.

In 2017, nearly 1,300 small businesses in Connecticut — from aspiring startups to established companies looking to expand — relied on the guidance from one of 25 Small Business Development Centers across the state. Funded through the U.S. Small Business Administration and the state Department of Economic and Community Development — and housed in chambers of commerce, community colleges and libraries — SBDCs provide confidential and no-cost business counseling ranging from business planning and financing to marketing and growth strategies.

The organization's biggest focus is helping businesses access capital, says Emily Carter, state director for Connecticut's SBDCs.

"Whether it's a startup venture or expanding business, we help businesses figure out what [capital] programs they're eligible for to save the entrepreneur as much time as possible," Carter said. "That way they can focus on their business."

In fact, over the past five years, the state's SBDCs have helped clients secure more than $200 million in funding, including $54 million last year.

"Our centers do not lend money," Carter says, "but we help our clients better prepare to look for funding and help educate them so they know what to expect from whatever funding source they're approaching."

First-time entrepreneur

The educational resources of the SBDC have benefitted Linda Longobardi, founder of ReGift the Wrap, a startup that provides eco-friendly, reusable fabric gift wrap. The stretchable fabric can be used to wrap a gift without scissors or tape in 15 seconds, says Longobardi, while eliminating wrapping paper waste that accounts for 4 tons of landfill waste annually.

While the inspiration for her company and early product development provided creativity and fun, the business side of bringing her product to market was more challenging for the first-time entrepreneur.

"I realized how much I didn't know," Longobardi said. "But the SBDC has helped guide me and helped connect me with resources I would have never known existed."

In addition to helping develop her business plan, the SBDC also helped connect Longobardi with a four-month accelerator program through reSET, a nonprofit that helps startup entrepreneurs.

"It's helped me meet mentors, other entrepreneurs and angel investors," she said.

Under the guidance of her advisor, Shelly Koehler, one of 11 SBDC advisors in the state, Longobardi is currently exploring distribution channels for her products, including QVC Sprouts, a crowdsource-funded competition through the video and eCommerce retail giant. She's also leveraging free small business resources from SBDC's university partners.

For example, through UConn School of Law's Intellectual Property clinic, she's receiving help with design patents and trademarks. Longobardi said that no-cost support from UConn law students saved her around $40,000.

"UConn is a huge stakeholder in our SBDC programming," Koehler said. "It gives students a chance to practice [in intellectual property] what they're learning in class, while giving back to the small business community."

And it's not just students and clients that benefit, says Carter. It's also a win for the state's economy, too.

"For every dollar our SBDCs receive in state funding, we put $44 back [into the economy] in Connecticut," Carter said. In fact, in the past five years, SBDCs have helped start more than 300 businesses statewide.

Support toolbox

Many clients — as their company's grow — continue to rely on the SBDC's expertise, Carter said. And the organization's recently revamped website has been enhanced to direct clients and prospects more efficiently to the most relevant resources.

"Through our 'Request Advising' feature, we can connect people, through three or four basic questions, to the most appropriate resource [for their need]," Carter said, noting her organization inventory of small business support tools includes webinars, industry benchmarking research, databases and software tools.

Nearly a decade-and-a-half into his growing business venture, Bittner, Triple Helix Corp.'s CEO, said he still promotes the SBDC to business owners and startups looking for support.

"The SBDC really helps prioritize what's immediately important [to the business owner] and comes prepared to work with you on that," Bittner said. "They're not afraid to get in the mix with your business and continuously push you [as an entrepreneur] forward."

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