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January 15, 2018 FOCUS: Nonprofits

Volunteer group SCORE helps startups, small businesses launch, grow

HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever Charlie Peake (left) is a retired businessman turned SCORE consultant who helped entrepreneur Kelly Strayer, who started HyWinds Technologies, a Simsbury-based maker of water-resistant pockets for lacrosse sticks, with the logistics of launching her startup venture. Peake voluntarily consults with various startups at the Simsbury Public Library (pictured in the background).
Andrea Tannenbaum, Chair, Connecticut Chapter, SCORE

Like many aspiring entrepreneurs, Kelly Strayer's idea for a business originated from a home-grown problem.

“My husband and I were constantly restringing our three sons' lacrosse pockets when they'd get wet,” said Strayer, noting the process typically costs between $40 to $70 per stick. “I realized the high-end lines we use on our sailboat, which are waterproof, are about the same diameter of the rails in a traditional lacrosse pocket.”

Believing her challenge was not unique, Strayer thought her idea of a water-resistant lacrosse pocket might have commercial appeal. So, in 2016, she launched HyWinds Technologies in Simsbury to introduce a patented technology into a global lacrosse equipment market that's expected to grow nearly 3 percent annually by 2021, according to industry research.

While the inspiration for Strayer's company may have come easily, the logistics of getting her business up and running were more daunting. To help her navigate the logistics of launching a startup, Strayer was referred through the state's U.S. Small Business Administration office to SCORE, a statewide volunteer organization designed to provide free mentoring to startups and small businesses.

The organization, which has 11 branch locations and nearly 50 volunteers across Connecticut, provides a variety of services, including face-to-face and online consultation, workshops and business planning assistance, said Andrea Tannenbaum, chair of SCORE's Connecticut Chapter. In 2016, more than 230 businesses turned to SCORE for support from established small businesses to startups.

“For existing businesses, the biggest challenge we see is typically around marketing,” Tannenbaum said. “For startups, business planning is definitely a big need. It's getting the idea onto paper and creating the road map.”

Kate Bolduc, director of business development at Goodwin College and a SCORE volunteer since last February, agrees.

“Often people have a vision of a startup and a passion for the business, but they don't have the tools at their disposal,” Bolduc said. “Figuring out our cash flow projections, securing funding and measuring success can be a challenge.”

That's where the expertise of SCORE's volunteers — who must complete a certification process, including a code of ethics — can help. Bolduc currently advises five SCORE clients and has conducted a handful of workshops, which typically draw between 20 to 30 attendees. She estimates she spends about 20 hours a month on SCORE activities, and finds the interaction with clients the most rewarding part of her volunteer services.

“There is such a great entrepreneurial spirit [in Connecticut],” said Bolduc, “and after three decades of [business development] experience, it's important to give back.”

Charlie Peake of Simsbury agrees. While Peake, who retired in 2015 and was a former consultant at Honeywell, was initially drawn to SCORE to help others given his background in business development and finance, he said he's gained as much as the clients he's helping.

“I have established ongoing relationships with my clients and just to share in their successes and [help resolve] any issues their business might have adds a whole new dimension to my life,” he said.

Peake and two other area SCORE volunteers who operate out of the Simsbury Public Library bi-weekly, see on average eight clients a month. And the scope of business ideas he encounters are diverse, ranging from aspiring restaurant owners to a dietary consultant to a labeling business.

That also requires an ability to leverage other people's expertise and SCORE resources. The needs of clients are often as diverse as their business ideas, Peake said.

“They may have marketing issues, legal questions, funding needs, or business planning needs,” Peake said. “You need to be a good listener and, at times, it's like being a traffic director in making sure to connect people with the right expert.”

That's where SCORE's national network of 300 chapters, 10,000 volunteers and remote mentoring — by phone, video or email — comes into play.

“We can meet our clients on whatever communications ground they want, as long as they're a resident of the United States,” said Tannenbaum, who serves clients in Maine, Florida, California and Washington state.

Bolduc said she hopes more people in Connecticut with a passion for business get involved as SCORE volunteers.

“It's just a great opportunity to give back and provides great comradery and networking too,” she said. “It's been one of the most rewarding experiences for me.”

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