Where to get business advice - free

Small Business Development Centers offer information, training and guidance to entrepreneurs, at little or no cost.

By Jessica Dickler, CNNMoney.com staff writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Whether you've got a great idea for a business, are struggling to get your business off the ground or have an established firm in need of a turnaround, Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs) can be valuable resources that don't cost a thing.

SBDCs offer training and counseling services to small-business owners and would-be entrepreneurs.

One-on-one consulting is free, and training programs on issues such as business plans, taxes, marketing, regulatory compliance and even international trade are offered either free or at cost.

"We provide training to about 450,000 small-business owners and consulting to 250,000 to 275,000 people a year," says Don Wilson, president and CEO of the Association of Small Business Development Centers.

Before opening their business nearly five years ago, Dean Spence and Don Hutcherson, co-owners of a powder coating service store, visited their local SBDC in Gainesville, Texas, for some tips on getting started.

Hutcherson said their one-on-one counseling covered profit-and-loss projections as well as information on the demographics and competition in their market.

All the research and planning gave them more confidence at the outset. When the business didn't immediately take off, "we were confident about what the final outcome would be if we stayed on our plan - we knew our business would work," Hutcherson said.

And it did. A year later the business began to turn around and has since become very successful, Hutcherson said.

Spence and Hutcherson continue to touch base with their SBDC counselor, Kathy, every few months, and she continues to do research for them on request - all at no cost. For example, when the two needed low-cost help at the store, she looked into incentive programs for hiring ex-convicts.

"My advice to anybody would be to go there first," Hutcherson now says of SBDCs.

"There is consistent evidence that the SBDC program makes a positive contribution to the growth of their clients' businesses, both the ones in business and the ones trying to get into business," said James Chrisman, a professor of management at Mississippi State University.

"SBDCs provide counseling to their clients rather than consulting," Chrisman explained, which means "they don't do all the work; they provide the clients with some direction and feedback so they can go out and do the work themselves."

The resulting business plans and strategies are highly personalized, making it virtually impossible for competitors to borrow your tactics, he added.

Although they are particularly helpful with startup businesses, SBDCs are also useful for established business owners in need of a turnaround, or who are considering opening another store or expanding internationally, Chrisman said.

SBDC programs can also provide a reality check for people not really ready to start a business, saving entrepreneurs time and resources.

The program, which is a cooperative effort of the Small Business Administration, colleges and universities, state and local governments and the private sector, was established by Congress in 1980.

Mostly based in universities or colleges, SBDCs are funded by state and local partnerships to match SBA support.

There are about 63 Lead SBDCs in the U.S. with a network of more than 1,100 service locations.

To find a local Small Business Development Center, log on to SBA's locator.

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