Call them business coaches, consultants, mentors, strategists — there are many terms used to describe the growing number of professional services firms and organizations that entrepreneurs can turn to for advice.
From human resources managers to executive peer group and corporate culture facilitators, a network of support businesses is readily available for companies in search of complementary pieces to the traditional resources.
And the latter — chambers of commerce and economic development offices, even public libraries — are beefing up the programs and services they offer or are fostering partnerships to deliver a one-stop shop for budding business owners.
“I would say there are a lot more people looking at consulting,” said Amma Johnson, vice president of chamber operations at the Harrisburg Regional Chamber and Capital Region Economic Development Corp. “Consultants and business coaches are a large part of our membership.”
The chamber has seen an influx of activity in special-interest groups, such as industry-specific roundtable discussions. A growing number of businesses are looking to be around leaders in their respective fields, she said.
Last year, the chamber started Performance CEO, a six-session monthly business roundtable that provides established business owners an open forum for idea sharing and co-mentoring, coaching and access to specialized training.
John Dame, who founded Dame Management Strategies in Susquehanna Township in 2004, has served as facilitator for the program.
“It’s a peer group, which can be a little scary for some,” Dame said. “You bring out the good and bad things, and you look for the group to help you overcome them.”
Dame said he started the business to help people improve their businesses.
“I think people are always looking for mentors or sounding boards, because there aren’t many out there. This is different than a board of directors or a best friend,” he said. “My job is to challenge, ask questions and hold people accountable.”
Dame also facilitates peer groups through Vistage, the largest CEO membership organization in the world.
Other local support businesses have spawned from previous job experiences. For Joe Bertotto, his days as chief culture officer at Harrisburg-based Tower Bancorp Inc., the parent company of Graystone Tower Bank, led to a home-based consulting business in Camp Hill that he calls the Strengths Life Project.
When Graystone was sold earlier this year to Lititz-based Susquehanna Bancshares Inc., the parent company of Susquehanna Bank, Bertotto decided to strike out on his own.
Since his February launch, he has picked up a handful of clients (including Journal Publications). The majority have fewer than 100 employees.
The idea is to help leaders and employees at these organizations realize and maximize their strengths, which should put individuals in the greatest place to succeed, he said.
“If you can get those things going and happening through a company, then everyone has a vested interest in helping each other succeed,” he said. “To me, it’s a natural thing to get people to their best every day.”
For more day-to-day needs, there are resources like Lower Paxton Township-based HR Resolutions.
Owner Karen Young started the business in 2005 for the sole purpose of helping small businesses in need of human resources management.
HR Resolutions helps between 20 and 30 clients per month. Many call as issues arise, while others retain the Dauphin County firm.
Like many support businesses, Young’s firm relies on word of mouth because a lot of companies are just learning of the service. Most people associate human resources with an in-house department.
The majority of Young’s clients are companies that aren’t big enough to have an in-house department. Once a company has 100-plus employees, it should have a human resources manager, she said.
“It’s helping small businesses. It’s giving them that resource,” she said.
As a small-business owner herself, Young said, she relies on a business coach to help manage areas that she is not particularly versed in.
“Good leaders surround themselves with good leaders who have expertise in areas they don’t,” she said.
To deal with development hurdles, county economic development offices are a good place for businesses to turn.
The Dauphin County Department of Community & Economic Development, which staffs the county’s industrial development authority, economic development corporation and its redevelopment authority, helps businesses navigate local government issues.
The office also provides some financing and partners with regional organizations like CREDC and other economic development entities to assist businesses, said Executive Director August “Skip” Memmi.
Other agency referrals for business planning or one-on-one counseling might go to small-business development centers.
The National Federation of Independent Business is another avenue for small-business owners.
NFIB’s marketing department partners with many different companies to offer discounts on insurance and other services, such as office supplies, payroll and tax filing and website design. The organization also tracks policy and regulation changes and offers information on a wide variety of topics, including labor laws, government contracts and health care.
For those in the Lancaster area, there is the Duke Street Business Center at Lancaster Public Library.
Started in 2006, the center provides free information and personal service for startups with questions on general licensing and market research assistance. The center also offers networking opportunities, said Heather Sharpe, a business reference librarian.
“There is a lot of information you need to start a small business (that) a lot of people didn’t know,” she said. “We discovered at the library that people were asking for startup information. We thought it would be a good idea to get the information centralized.”
The center started with a federal grant of $50,000 and an additional $17,000 grant from the High Foundation for furnishing, Sharpe said. The state provides an additional $70,000 annual subsidy for staffing and to build the collection of materials. The county provides about $90,000 to cover annual licensing fees for databases in the center.
“A lot of people want to know how to register their business, what licenses they might need,” she said. “We have a good collection of books they can refer to for specific business types.”
To take advantage of the services at the business center, residents need only a library card in good standing. Many resources also can be accessed from home.
“We try to encourage people to look at everything you have to do,” Sharpe said. “It’s a lot more involved than people think about upfront.”
Starting or growing a small business is not a simple task.
Here are some common small-business assumptions, mistakes and concerns, according to the consultants and agencies interviewed for this story.
Assumption: Land development issues and permitting are done at the county level.
Reality: Pennsylvania is unique in the fact that these issues are handled by local municipalities.
Assumption: Starting a business and building organization unity are easy things to do, and the process is quick.
Reality: Having a good idea doesn’t mean everything will just fall into place. Team organization takes time and commitment and learning to play to each other’s strengths.
Assumption: Anything and everything can go in the personnel file.
Reality: There should be separate files for different issues.
Mistake: Companies are profitable but run out of cash.
Right way: Monthly or quarterly profit and loss statements are only part of the story. Be conscious of cash demands in a tighter credit environment.
Mistake: Many companies don’t take the time to understand their market.
Right way: Analyze current market research from available resources, many of which are free.
Mistake: Underfunding training and development.
Right way: Evaluate industry-specific and other resources, including free and low-cost options, to strengthen your organization.
Concern: How do I manage family issues in a family-owned business?
Concern: How do I grow my business intelligently? When is the right time to add staff?
Concern: How do I reach my customer base and market the business?