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Fast Trac Puts Entrepreneurs on the Right Track

April 6, 2010

Fast Trac Classmates

James Lilly has a passion for music and mentoring inner city youth. Dawn Mentzer had a long, successful career as a Product Marketing Manager at a telecommunications firm until her job was eliminated in corporate acquisition.  Jackie Herman is a stay-at- home mom of five children.

Different backgrounds. Different professional experience. Yet all three were looking for an answer to the same question, “Go or no go?” Each had ideas for their own businesses, but needed help defining their concepts and researching whether or not they were likely to succeed.

They needed SCORE Lancaster’s First Step FastTrac® workshop series.

My business idea sounded great in theory, but I wasn’t sure how to determine if it could stand on its own,” said Dawn Mentzer about producing a line of organic salad dressings for soy and gluten sensitive consumers. “After reading the syllabus for the FastTrac series, I knew I’d be a fool if I didn’t enroll. It covered all aspects of starting a business.

First Step FastTrac facilitators and coaches guide entrepreneurs through a research-and-discovery process to help them decide if their business ideas are …well…feasible. Through intense, interactive three-hour weekly sessions over a twelve-week period, the program explores and applies the business processes involved in starting and operating a business – legal, accounting, marketing, sales and operations. The sessions are structured so participants build written feasibility plans as they address each aspect involved in launching their businesses.

Early in the program, SCORE coaches encourage prospective entrepreneurs to look honestly at themselves and what they want out of owning businesses. For James Lilly, freedom to do what he loves and control his own work schedule motivated him. His idea is to give youth a way to constructively and creatively express emotions through hip hop dance, R&B music, and poetry.

According to James, “Helping kids to see their potential and guiding them to resolve conflicts peacefully is incredibly fulfilling. The prospect of building a business around that is a dream come true.

The FastTrac program also encourages participants to set realistic expectations. Facilitators emphasize that starting a business demands time (often far more than a full-time job), money, and emotional commitment. To succeed, entrepreneurs need to recognize and confirm opportunities, take action, and leverage resources. They need to be driven and understand that the road ahead can be fulfilling, but never easy.

As the course progresses, students perform independent research – markets, customers, competitors – to better understand their industry.  Facilitators direct them to resources, including the Lancaster Library System’s Duke Street Business Center, where they learn more about their opportunities and challenges. After gathering that information, participants develop marketing strategies to effectively launch and sustain their products and services.

Students also get several lessons in business finance. They learn how to determine pricing and profitability of their products and services by identifying production and operating costs and projecting sales volumes. They input that information into a financial model to see whether or not the rates they’ll need to charge customers are reasonable … and profitable.

For Jackie Herman, who explored two businesses – a women’s boutique and a brick-oven pizza parlor – calculating profitability was the most important thing she learned during the series. “It helped us see what we were in for as far as commitment on return. The profit margin for the boutique was far less than the pizza parlor.

The FastTrac presenters also explain cash flow reports and their importance in monitoring a business’s fiscal health. “The language of business is numbers and money, “said Lou Davenport, a SCORE volunteer who helped organize and facilitate the program. “All entrepreneurs need to learn how to speak that language.

Recognizing that not every business owner understands finances, SCORE provides a financial model in Microsoft Excel® format that enables students to project how their businesses might fare during their first three years. With guidance from their coaches, participants enter start-up costs, employee expenses, operating costs, and sales projections into the model to forecast income statements, cash flow statements, and balance sheets. 

For most entrepreneurs, that is where the rubber hits the road,” explained Davenport. “It gives each of them a pretty good idea of whether or not the business concept – as it currently stands – is feasible. Some might reach a ‘go’ or ‘no go’ decision based on the results in the model, and others might modify their concepts to attain more favorable outcomes. Either way, it’s time to make a very important decision.

James Lilly, Dawn Mentzer and Jackie Herman were at that crossroad, but each made very different choices.

Lilly made a “go” decision for his business and is full-steam ahead with Abandoned Lyrics youth music mentoring program. “I’m making day to day full time progress. FastTrac made a world of difference through the counselors’ willingness to be honest and share real life experiences.

Mentzer reached a “no go” verdict for her organic salad dressing idea. “Although my original business idea didn’t work out, I consider my FastTrac experience a huge success,” shared Mentzer. “It led me to seriously consider my strengths, capabilities, and needs. Now I’m launching my own freelance writing business where I can make the most of my skills and enjoy flexibility in my work schedule – something I wouldn’t have had with the salad dressing production business.

Herman said her business start-up is on stand-by at the moment and requires additional research. ”We’re at a stand-still right now. We’re unsure of our venture and may look into a website store first. Location is our hardest decision.

SCORE Lancaster’s FastTrac series is designed to empower prospective entrepreneurs with guidance, knowledge, resources, and moral support so they can make intelligent decisions. A “go” or “no go” outcome at the end of the course doesn’t define success or failure.  It’s the students’ understanding of business processes and ‘due diligence’ – their confidence in their decision-making – that is most important. FastTrac serves as a blueprint for why and how to make better decisions before investing significant time and money into a business venture.  It’s an effective planning process and a powerful reality check. To learn more, contact SCORE Lancaster at www.scorelancaster.org or 717-397-3092.

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