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Best Local Place for Free Business Startup Help

They don’t have money to really market or advertise their existence, and most business owners and would-be entrereneurs have never heard of them. But America’s 1,100 Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs) are a terrific resource for startups. Most SBDCs are hidden in out-of-the-way corners of local colleges and universities, chambers of commerce and vocational schools, but finding one is well worth the effort.  If you’re looking to unleash your inner entrepreneur, one of the the best places for most people to start is at a local SBDC.

“We’re seeing more individuals interested in starting businesses, and I can’t say we’re surprised,” says Christian Conroy, State Director of the Pennsylvania SBDC, a network of 18 college-based centers providing help to new and existing businesses in PA.  On-Site Heavy Equipment Repair in Clarence, PA is one example of a startup that forged ahead despite a dubious economy. Husband and wife team Don and Coleen Reese began their business just after the collapse of Bear Stearns in 2008. Working through the Penn State University SBDC, the couple got help developing a financial model and doing market research that helped them secure startup capital.

SBDCs offer counseling, training and tech help in all areas of business management, including finance, marketing, production, engineering, and feasibility studies. The program is run jointly by private enterprise and the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA).

Despite cuts in funding, SBDCs are seeing a surge of interest in starting a business.  Sharon and Frank Gundy of Hazleton, PA, looked at a new venture as a way to recoup lost income. Frank had been laid off, and Sharon, a real estate agent, was hard-pressed for sales. The couple sought help from the Wilkes University SBDC to launch their novelty gift business and build an online presence.

And Kelly Schick joined the entrepreneur ranks after being laid off from her job at Osram-Sylvania, the giant lighting manufacturer. The Gannon University SBDC helped Schick take over a former sports bar in downtown Warren, PA, after navigating her through the loan process. “I might have given up without help and encouragement from the SBDC,” says Schick, now the proud owner of Kelly’s Pub.

Free help from an SBDC is available to anyone interested in starting a small business for the first time or simply improving and expanding an existing small business, and who cannot afford the services of a private consultant. To locate a  Small Business Development Center near you:

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Why You Should Join Startup America Partnership

The Startup America Partnership is new and largely unknown, but this independent, private-sector coalition of corporate tech titans, advisors, financing firms, mentors and sundry service providers won’t be undiscovered for long.  Any business owner or entrepreneur – from startup (newly created), to rampup (initial growth stage), to speedup (going like gang busters) – should be ready to tap this free resource when the help starts flowing.

The way in will be through a free Startup America membership (via application) that isn’t yet available, but will be soon.  So sign up now to be notified by email when details on the membership application process are released.    

The group’s mission is mighty:  To inspire and accelerate high-growth entrepreneurship in the U.S. with services, product discounts, special access, resources, connections and “insider information” from a start-studded lineup of business power hitters.   It’s not a loan or grant program, do ditch that thought. Because Startup America is still starting up itself, most of what’s coming is still in development.  But here’s a sampling of what’s coming:   

  • Google will provide up to $100 million worth of online advertising to Startup America Partnership member companies to over the next year.
  • Intuit will offer special discounts on its flagship products and services, including QuickBooks Online, Intuit Payroll Services, QuickBooks Merchant Services and Intuit Websites. Value: $37 million
  • Angel Capital Association (ACA) and Angel Resource Institute (ARI) will double the number of high caliber investors in angel groups across the country, increasing annual investment by $1 billion.  Qualifying Startup America Partnership member companies will be matched with angel investor mentors to build their success in starting and growing their businesses.
  • Salesforce.com will provide products and technology to power Startup America Partnership member companies. This includes CRM, a collaboration platform, a resource catalog built on Force.com, and a workflow engine to connect entrepreneurs with resources from private-sector partners.    
  • The National Venture Capital Association (NVCA) will create the NVCA / Startup America Partnership Network, providing access to its 400 venture capital firms, 4,000 investors and thousands of venture-backed company CEOs via events around the country; and will provide access to StartUpHire.com, a free online jobs board for member companies.
  • American Express OPEN will provide special access and advantaged pricing for products and services to help businesses attract and retain customers and improve cash flow. Estimated value: $125 million
  • Cisco will provide training (through intermediaries trained and supported by Cisco) to approximately 6,000 entrepreneurs within 50 cities by January 2014.  Estimated value: $3 million.
  • Ernst & Young (EY) will provide access to EY professionals and the firm’s Entrepreneur Of The Year (EOY) network as advisors and mentors, plus on-line resources and other analytical tools.  Estimated value: $7.5 million.
  • First Data, a major electronic commerce and payment processing firm, will offer discounts on processing services including credit and debit acceptance as well as point-of-sale terminals to Startup America Partnership member companies.
  • HP will offer discounts on laptops, desktops, workstations, Palm smart phones, tablets, printers, wireless routers, servers and more to Partnership members.  Estimated savings for startups will be $100 million over three years.   
  • IndieGoGo, a platform for raising money online via “crowd sourcing,” will offer a 50% discount on campaign fees on the site and feature members on the company’s website.
  • LinkedIn will provide a special platform for Startup America members to build an identity and grow a network. LinkedIn will also contribute training, services, and products to members.
  • Microsoft will offer its BizSpark program to all qualified software startups.  BizSpark provides access to Microsoft software free for three years including support, training and access to Windows Azure, Microsoft’s Cloud Services Platform.  Participants are also connected to a global network of 700,000 mentors, partners and investors. 

AOL co-founder Steve Case chairs the partnership and the Kauffman and Case Foundations are founding partners, providing initial funding and strategic guidance.  

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