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N.C. small business centers play big business role

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Every big business starts as a small business.  Mark Zuckerberg in his dorm room in Cambridge. Steve Jobs in his parents’ Silicon Valley garage.  Bill Gates and Paul Allen in Albuquerque (yes, Albuquerque.)

Although they typically don’t get a lot of attention, small businesses are a substantial part of our economy. Most of the businesses we deal with every day are small. When my heat pump goes on the blink, I don’t call Carrier. I call Buddy, who runs a HVAC shop on the other side of town.

North Carolina companies with under 50 workers make up a third of annual business payrolls. But they are giants compared to most small businesses. Around 124,000 companies here have fewer than five employees.

Do you know hard it is to build an outfit that can afford even four employees?  Suzanne Wallace knows.

She is the director of the Small Business Center at Western Piedmont Community College in Morganton.  All 58 community colleges in North Carolina house a center like hers. Since 1984, they have been a launch pad for hundreds of startups each year creating thousands of jobs.

The last five months have been brutal for small businesses. I called Wallace to see what help was available on the ground.

She told me of brainstorming with gym operators closed by the pandemic. “We work with them on ideas, and getting them, maybe, to do online services for their clientele. That’s just one example.”

Travel has been clobbered. Wallace is working with the owner of a travel agency. “What can she do to pivot her business to generate additional sources of income? She’s looking at local travel, vineyards and things that are more local.

“And we’re working with a marketing firm to kind of help her revitalize her web site and get some information out so people will understand what she does, and hopefully have an interest in requesting her services.”

Which points to another useful service of the business centers: They know the professionals and specialists in town —lawyers, accountants, marketing pros. When you’re starting up, you may not know who to call.

Last year, the statewide numbers were 682 startups attributable to the centers , 2,800 new jobs.  Another 1,119 jobs were saved. Surveys of business owners showed that many jobs would probably have been lost without counseling help from the centers.

The network costs $6.55 million to run, so that works out to around $1,671 per job created or saved.  The state was ready to spend much more for each of the jobs that would have come with Amazon’s second headquarters.

Wallace and her colleagues around the state got $3 million from the federal CARES Act with a goal of helping more businesses. It’s not about just trying to keep businesses alive; the pandemic has created opportunities.  Someone who was thinking about starting a quilting business may now be looking at personal protective equipment as a good market.

Wallace spent 12 years at Mitchell Community College, in Statesville, mostly running that college’s small business center.  On March 2, she started her new job in Burke County. Two weeks later,  “I was like, ‘Oh my goodness.’”

Suddenly, every small business center was scrambling to learn about a blizzard of new alphabet programs like PPP so they could help local folks understand them. All of Wallace’s training programs went from in-person to webinars and they got very popular; attendance soared. Social media webinars, business planning, marketing.  Lots of interest.

Wallace’ s degree at Western Carolina was in computer information systems, and she has an MBA from High Point University. Her formal education was augmented by running a restaurant in Cullowhee for two and a half years.

She did everything. Delivered wings to the dorms, Waited tables. Ran the register. A typical startup. The boss mops floors.

Today, she works with folks who want to start up restaurants because “that’s probably the most common type of small business that people want to start.”

Her experience and training aside, she avoids telling would-be entrepreneurs in the first 15 minutes what she’d do.

She would rather help them discover the right path. Get them to run some numbers. Something like, as Wallace puts it, “OK, I’m going to have to make $10,000 a month to pay all of my expenses. Is it realistic? And if it’s not, I have to change something about the business model to make it work.”

She has talked to more than a thousand people wanting to start a business, and sometimes what she hears, she knows won’t work. “But you have to get them to realize that on their own. It does me no good to sit there and say ‘That’s not going to be possible.’”

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