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SCORE Volunteers Help Entrepreneurs Get Down to Business
Rick Forgay, Tom Toman, and Richard Lopatka

From left, SCORE volunteer counselors Rick Forgay, Tom Toman, and Richard Lopatka.

There are 45 volunteer counselors currently serving the Western Mass. chapter of SCORE, once (but no longer) officially known as the Service Corps of Retired Executives. Between them, these volunteers have seen just about every issue or problem that can confront a business owner, and by passing on their knowledge and experience they’re helping fledgling entrepreneurs and established business owners clear hurdles in the path to success.

Hendalee Wilson has seen more than a few friends and relatives push the panic button when the ‘check engine’ light comes on in their vehicle.

He told BusinessWest that the indicator, while helpful in that it alerts the motorist that something is wrong, can also bring on some serious anxiety, and unwarranted expense, because there are myriad reasons why the light comes on — many of them serious in nature, but some that are anything but.

He found this out through personal experience; he wound up paying more than $175 for a diagnostic test that revealed he needed to replace a $15 solenoid, or relay, something he probably could have done himself.

Sensing an entrepreneurial opportunity, Wilson, a recent graduate of Western New England College and now a senior technical programmer, analyst, and project leader in the school’s Office of Information Technology, has created something called the ‘CellAssist.’ In simple terms, this device communicates with a vehicle’s on-board computer, views the internal sensor readings, and displays the diagnosis through a simple interface on almost any standard cell phone.

The data extracted from the vehicle can then be transmitted over the Internet to a worldwide system that is viewable by mechanics, repair shops, towing companies, and car manufacturers that can provide assistance as necessary, he continued, adding that his product can let people know quickly, efficiently, and cheaply just what they’re up against — which is all anyone who sees that light go on wants to know.

“A cell phone is a piece of processing power that we all carry, and I thought to myself, ‘we can harness that processing power to create a wireless diagnostic tool,’” said Wilson, who has a patent pending on his invention, but acknowledged that his business venture is still very much in the conceptual stage. And for help in shaping that concept and deciding if and how to bring his product to market, he has leaned heavily on the local chapter (#228) of SCORE, an agency formerly known as the Service Corps of Retired Executives, which now goes largely by its acronym and the marketing line ‘Counselors to America’s Small Business.’

That’s because many of those providing such counsel are in fact not retired, said Tom Toman, former chief information officer with Stanhome, current president of the local chapter, and one of those advising Wilson on the many aspects of making his vision reality.

Like other volunteers we spoke with, he talked of how rewarding it is to be of assistance to people who have ideas and energy but often lack critical knowledge and experience. “It’s been an intriguing time with SCORE … it’s a great feeling when you can bring something to the table and help people through issues. These people often have a lot of the answers, but they don’t know how to bring it all together. That’s where we come in.”

There are hundreds of area business owners who have sought help from SCORE Chapter 228 and its 45 counselors. Assistance comes in a number of forms, said Rick Forgay, one of those not-yet-retired counselors who left a career in the newspaper business — his last stop was as circulation manager for the Republican — to start his own business, the Rick Forgay Leadership Institute. In fact, he was a client of the local SCORE chapter, and was so impressed with the organization and its volunteers that he became one himself.

He said SCORE volunteers provide everything from help with writing a business plan to the hard but necessary questions about whether the individual sitting across the table has what it takes to be an entrepreneur.

“One of our favorite questions is ‘is this a business or a hobby?’” he explained. “And I look for the passion level; do they have what it takes to weather the storm and stick to their guns when they’re under fire? We grill them very hard at the outset on things they may not have thought about, and sometimes we can save them considerable time, money, and pain.”

In this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at SCORE and how local counselors are helping would-be entrepreneurs and established business owners make smart decisions and avoid what can be very costly mistakes.

Checking Under the Hood

“They took it from something kind of laughable to something much more realistic.”

That’s how Wilson chose to describe how Toman and other counselors at SCORE helped transform his business plan for the CellAssist, which remains very much a work in progress.

“They brought up a lot of concerns; through their experience in business they had a lot of insight into points that potential investors would raise about the product,” he explained, adding that he first sought help roughly a year ago, or two years after he first starting conceiving his product. “They introduced me to a lot of people who have helped me understand the process of obtaining capital, which is the next critical step for me.”

The local SCORE chapter, headquartered in Springfield, has been imparting such knowledge and advice for 40 years now, and through a number of different vehicles, said Richard Lopatka, a retired United Technologies executive who has been a volunteer counselor since 1999.

He told BusinessWest that while business owners face common challenges, their ventures — and their routes to achieving success — are like snowflakes; none are identical. And because of this, the rich diversity of the SCORE volunteer base is an asset for clients, and the region as a whole.

“The journey we take with the client is very much focused on what their needs are,” said Lopatka. “We go on down the path that the client and his and her issues dictate that we take.”

In addition to direct counseling services, SCORE also hosts a number of workshops and courses, as well as an annual Women Business Owners Roundtable. Two of the workshops — ‘How to Write a Business Plan and Cash Flow’ and ‘How to Really Start Your Own Business’ — are staged monthly, while others are conducted once or a few times a year. The titles reveal the full depth and breadth of business subject matter the agency addresses. They include:

• ‘Planning Your Business Web Site’;
• ‘Building and Activating an Effective Marketing Plan’;
• ‘Increase Productivity, Growing Your Bottom Line’;
• ‘Tips on Commercializing Your Innovation’;
• ‘The ABCs of Strategic Planning’;
• ‘How to Gather and Implement Market Research’; and
• ‘How to Start and Operate a Non-profit.’

In fiscal year 2006, the 45 volunteers, including 13 women, contributed more than 5,000 hours of counseling. Overall, there were 1,500 “client services,” a 12% increase over FY ’05; 35 workshops, a 30% jump over the prior year; and a total of 412 clients attending those workshops, an 18% increase. And the projected numbers for FY ’07 show continued growth.

Meanwhile, there has been growth in facilities. The chapter continues to serve the area from Worcester to the New York border, but in recent years it has added offices in Greenfield, Agawam, and Pittsfield.

Counselors serving Western Mass. follow a formal five-step process, said Toman, adding that step one is “establishing rapport.” From there, volunteers move on to conducting a needs assessment; identifying business goals, challenges, and opportunities; preparing and implementing a plan; and finally, obtaining feedback and “setting a roadmap for mentoring.”

Overall, though, services are provided on a needs basis, with the broad goal of making entrepreneurs aware of the steps they need to take, and then helping them successfully take those steps.

“Rather than give them the whole bottle of pills to take, we’ll give them one or two pills at a time,” said Forgay. “We always encourage them to take a specific next step with their business, and then we encourage the accountability — coming back once that step’s been accomplished and going forward; it’s the accountability that they don’t get when they’re out there on their own.”

Referrals to the agency come from area banks — often after submittal of an incomplete or unrealistic business plan — and also area chambers and other economic development-related agencies, said Lopatka. Counselors are assigned usually at random, but sometimes on the basis of a specific knowledge base, such as marketing, creative design, and others.

Counselors work with clients for varying lengths of time, and often intermittently, with business owners returning when different issues or obstacles arise. In many cases, counselors become long-time mentors.

Bean Entrepreneurial

For Kristin Rigg and Samantha Sherman, help from SCORE was sought early and often with regard to a venture they’re now close to getting off the ground. It’s called Tekoa Mountain Coffee Roasters, so named because the two Westfield residents are frequent hikers on that summit, which straddles the Whip City, Russell, and Montgomery, and is known for its rattlesnakes.

“We haven’t seen any yet, but we’ve heard the stories and know someone who was bitten, so we’re real careful,” said Rigg, noting that the snakes, or the tales about them, are so legendary that she and Sherman have named one of their blends ‘Rattlesnake Roast.’ “It has a little more of a bite,” she said, without a hint of remorse in her voice.

Coming up with product names — ‘Tekoa Sunrise’ (“it’s a happy, morning coffee”) and ‘Mountain Zen’ are among the others — has been one of the few relatively easy assignments with getting this business going, said Rigg, an analytical chemist by trade who said most aspects of business were not only foreign to her, but ran counter to the way she was taught to think.

“The roasting and baking and figuring out numbers I was great with, but understanding business projections and just the entire paradigm of business is actually completely the opposite of science,” she explained. “In science, you take all the data and make a hypothesis; in business, you put out a projection and hope your data backs it up.”

SCORE has helped her learn a new way of thinking, she said, adding that this story started in 2004 when she and Sherman were working for a startup coffee shop in Hartford, one that was roasting its own blends. “We kept saying to ourselves, ‘if this were our shop we’d be doing things so much differently,’” she recalled, adding that before too long the two were talking more than hypotheticals, thanks to some chance developments.

Sherman took a job as catering manager with the food service handling Springfield Technical Community College and, upon handling some assignments in the Andrew M. Scibelli Enterprise Center on the school’s campus (where the SCORE office is located), started talking with some of the entrepreneurs doing business there. During one visit, she stopped into the SCORE facility and left with a brochure for one of its programs: ‘How to Really Start Your Own Business.’

The two attended that session and several others in the months to follow, including a program on business plan writing, and while doing so, began to solidify their own plans for a coffee-roasting venture. Over the past few years, they have assembled equipment, including several roasters, conducted market research and contrived specific blends, staged tastings (including one for SCORE counselors), and started to build a customer base. The next step is to find a location in Westfield, preferably close to the state college there, and launch their shop. SCORE has been providing help at every turn because Rigg, in particular, has been relentless in pursuit of it.

Indeed, when asked which counselors she had worked with, Rigg said, “all of them, I think.

“I just kept going back and asking more questions,” she said. “They’d answer them, I’d say, ‘OK, I need to think about these,’ and I’d make another appointment and ask more questions.

“They all have different backgrounds, so I can get help with just about anything,” she continued, referring to the counselors she’s worked with.

“Like health insurance … all I knew about it was going to the HR department and asking for it. I needed to know how to go about it as a business owner, and there was someone to help me.”

Getting the Idea

While Tekoa Mountain Roasters is not yet a success story, Lopatka, one of the many counselors to work with that client, is confident it will become one. Meanwhile, there are many successes already in the portfolio. He listed several instances where assistance from SCORE helped business owners avoid bankruptcy or shutting down their ventures.

But there would probably be many more such stories if business owners would seek SCORE’s help before a problem reached a critical level.

“Some people come to us too late, when they’ve already hit the wall,” Lopatka continued, noting instances when individuals seek help at times of severe financial hardship or other problems that threaten their existence. “I’ve heard many people say, ‘I wish I’d come here six months or a year ago.’”

To help prevent more of these episodes, those with the local SCORE chapter are working to make their agency and its services more visible to those in the business community or looking to enter it. Steps in this direction include a revamped Web site — — that highlights the many programs and services offered, as well as new or expanded partnerships with area chambers and other business groups.

The obvious goals, said Toman, are to make more budding entrepreneurs and established business owners aware of SCORE and the many ways it can provide assistance, and to prompt such individuals to make contact before it’s too late.

Elaborating, he said ‘too late’ refers to both established businesses that are in trouble from which they can’t extricate themselves, and entrepreneurs who should have done a little more homework and sought out some practical advice before going out on their own.

“We don’t discourage anyone from going into business, but we’ll open their eyes,” he said. “We’ll ask the key questions; ‘you want to sell a T-shirt for $50, but do you have a market for that?’ Often, it’s the first time people really hear things like that. They have the idea, they have the excitement, and they have the drive, but they haven’t really thought about the financial aspects of making this a successful business.

“We’re an economic development agency,” he concluded. “We’re here to help businesses stay in business and, in the process, improve the economic health of Western Mass.”

Entrepreneurial Horsepower

As he talked about CellAssist, Wilson referenced journalistic exposés that have uncovered some exploitation of consumers on the part of some service providers handling the dreaded ‘check-engine’ light and whatever’s causing it to go on.

He said his product enables motorists to go to a garage or dealership “armed with some knowledge, something that will enable you to have an intelligent dialogue with the mechanic.”

In that respect, his invention is a lot like SCORE, which enables business owners and budding entrepreneurs to be similarly armed as they tackle the many, seemingly endless challenges to finding success in business.

And there is another similarity. They both go to work when the light comes on.

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]