(This column originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer)
Did someone say free? Yes, you read it. And if you’re the owner of a small business or a startup struggling to deal with higher costs, tight labor and limited resources, free is a magic word. And there’s good news if you’re running a business in the Philadelphia area. There are at least three great resources to help you manage and grow your company withcompletely free services.
One of the biggest challenges facing any entrepreneur in need of financing is creating a business plan. The key element of a business plan is market data: Where are potential customers? How will there be demand for what you sell? What regions around the world are the best places to offer your products? Where are the best locations for your business? Getting this data isn’t easy. But the Philadelphia Free Library has it. All you have to do is ask.
“ People frequently come in with … an idea for a business — maybe they want to open up a cafe or a yoga studio — but they don’t necessarily know where they want to open it,” says Caitlin Seifritz, a supervisor at the library who helps run the center. “We can help them get a sense of the landscape and answer questions like where are the demographics of people who are most likely going to visit a yoga studio or coffee shop or where the business should be located and how many yoga studios or coffee shops are already in that specific area.”
Any business owner with a library card can access information about consumers, new and existing businesses, brands, market rankings, investment reports, corporate histories, industry studies, and business news from a variety of sources.
The center also offers free meeting spaces and educational programs for small businesses and nonprofits, and has a number of online tools to teach business owners how to access the data.
Temple University’s Fox School of Business hosts one of the many Small Business Administration’s Small Business Development Centers that business owners (generally those with fewer than 300 employees) can find around the United States. The school’s SBDC covers Philadelphia, the eastern half of Montgomery County, and the southern half of Bucks Country. There is a similar SBDC at Rutgers University for South Jersey businesses.
“Our mission is to help small businesses throughout the entire life cycle of the business — from startup to exit,” says Karl Kraus, the SBDC’s interim director at Temple.
Although the SBDC provides free educational events to help small business owners and a certification program for small contractors, to me the biggest benefit is the one-on-one consulting.SBDC’s staff and undergraduate and graduate students (supervised by their professors) can help startups and existing businesses with viability studies, market research, succession planning, technology challenges, and even procurement and government contracting.
“What we do is we leverage the resources that are available to the Fox School of Business” said Kraus.
Businesses need legal advice — and it can be expensive. Which is why Philadelphia VIP is a great organization for small companies that can’t afford this kind of help.
Philadelphia VIP is a nonprofit legal services agency that matches small businesses, nonprofits, and individuals with volunteer attorneys for legal assistance. Their volunteers help clients free of charge (pro bono) with a variety of legal issues including: choosing what type of entity to become (e.g., a sole proprietorship vs. a Limited Liability Company), how to incorporate with the state, reviewing contracts, giving advice on commercial leases, and helping to apply for a trademark, copyright, or patent.
“Small businesses can ask to have a free consultation with an attorney to talk through important legal questions and get legal advice that is specific to their business,” says Kelly Gastley, a managing attorney at the organization. “Our volunteers also offer more extended representation for those legal issues that cannot be addressed through a shorter consultation.”
Gastley says that her organization focuses on serving small businesses located in Philadelphia where the owner’s household income is under a certain threshold — 400% of the federal poverty guidelines. That generally means an annual income of about $54,000 for a household of one or $111,000 for a household of four people.