FastTrac® Workshop Series Prepares Entrepreneurs
by Dawn Mentzer, Lancaster SCORE
Starting a business can be a bit like riding a rollercoaster. Scary, yet exciting: less intimidating and more gratifying when you’re sharing the ride with someone else. In its Spring 2010 First Step FastTrac® workshop series, SCORE Lancaster brought 18 entrepreneurs together to assess the feasibility of their business ideas. By delivering critical knowledge about all aspects of launching and operating a business, SCORE facilitators and coaches lessened the anxiety of the unknown … and provided moral support in an interactive class environment.
For 12 weeks – in three-hour sessions each week – the FastTrac curriculum and SCORE volunteers guided the entrepreneurs through the assessment process. They defined their personal visions for their business concepts, detailed their products and services, researched their markets, evaluated their competitive strengths and weaknesses, explored cash flow and projecting profitability, and considered legal structures. Tough work – but with the expertise of SCORE facilitators, one-on-one interaction with SCORE coaches, and the realization that they weren’t in it all alone – the participants gained the confidence, knowledge and skills they needed to make intelligent decisions . By writing feasibility plans as they progressed through the course, they identified whether their business ideas should ultimately be a “go” or a “no go”.
Research and Discovery Process
Karen Stillwagon of New Holland faithfully attended the weekly FastTrac classes to get a better grasp on how to prepare for opening the mobile welding business that she and her fiancé Tim have been dreaming about. Although she has a solid background in small business management via her experience in staffing and accounting in the restaurant and retail arenas, she discovered that running particular aspects of someone else’s business is much different than understanding and managing all the components of your own business.
“FastTrac opened my eyes to so many things that I would have never thought of, “shared Stillwagon. “Financial considerations, certifications, payroll taxes…it gave me access to tools that helped point me in the right direction during our research.”
According to Stillwagon, she returned home after each session and shared what she learned – and what she needed to learn more about – with Tim. Currently employed as a welder, he has the hands-on industry experience that Stillwagon lacks. “He became a key resource in my research efforts because he knows the nuts and bolts of the work we’ll be doing,” Stillwagon explained. “We discovered we have a very complimentary set of skills. Me with my management background and Tim with his in-depth knowledge about the services our business will be providing. “
Unfortunately, not all of her research was as easily obtainable. Stillwagon said she reached a near breaking point when it came to market analysis. “I was all over the map in trying to find answers until FastTrac introduced us to the resources that the Lancaster Library System Duke Street Business Center provides, and taught us how to use them. For me, that was the most valuable aspect of the course.”
For Stillwagon, access to tools and resources along with the candid feedback and support from SCORE volunteers and her fellow classmates gave her the motivation to move forward and not give up when the going got tough. At the end of the course, Stillwagon and her fiancée arrived at a “go” decision for their business and are using the FastTrac feasibility plan framework to finalize their business planning.
Better Business Sense and Preparedness
Before FastTrac, Bob and Stephanie Ditzler of Lebanon were no strangers to SCORE. Nearly four years ago, they engaged in some online counseling to explore the possibility of purchasing an automotive transmission business from Bob’s current employer.
“We got just so far, and then my boss stopped talking about selling the business,” recalled Bob. “I think at that point, he decided to continue to earn the full, proven income of the business until he’s ready to retire.”
Earlier this year, when the Ditzlers decided to revisit the idea of starting their own business or buying an existing one, they didn’t want to leave any stones unturned. With Bob’s expertise in the automotive industry and Stephanie’s background in accounting and purchasing, they decided to attend FastTrac together to get the most out of what it had to offer.
“The course delivered more than I thought it would. The information they provided was phenomenally helpful and we were surprised at how much we learned,” shared Bob. “If the facilitators and coaches didn’t have an answer to a question, they’d go out of their way to find it. We were very pleased with their responsiveness and follow up.”
He said the process of researching a business idea is truly an “emotional rollercoaster”. At several times throughout the course, someone remarked in fun, “Anybody have any Dramamine?”
But the bumpy ride never dissuaded Bob and Stephanie from putting 200% effort into their fact-finding and planning mission. “Is FastTrac a big commitment? Yes. But you get out of it what you put into it. The more you put into your research, and the more you use the counselors as a sounding board, the more you benefit.”
Having graduated from FastTrac, the couple is preparing to re-open discussions with Bob’s employer about purchasing the transmission shop and expanding it into a general automotive services business. They’re hopeful that his boss will recognize how serious – and better prepared – they are as a result of their participation in the FastTrac series.
A SCORE Coach’s Point of View
As one of the FastTrac coaches, Dick Hendricks provided feedback and recommendations to participants as they worked on their feasibility plans and figured out how to build business ownership into their lifestyles.
“I was impressed by the caliber of people that enrolled in the course,” said Hendricks. “They were enthusiastic and motivated. Most had a pretty clear idea of what they wanted to do. For those that didn’t, the course helped them through the uncertainties.”
Interesting to Hendricks were the scope and breadth of the business ideas that participants brought to the series – restaurants, drive-through grocery store, mobile welding, sheet metal fabrication, general construction, automotive repair and maintenance, saw sharpening, and others. The variety of trades and industries along with the diversity of the participants made the experience memorable and fulfilling.
“In addition to individual enrollments, we also had husband and wife teams, brothers, and co-workers taking the course together to learn as much as they could collectively and to identify what strengths each could bring to their businesses, “ explained Hendricks.
And even with his strong business development credentials, Hendricks found personal value in FastTrac’s approach to business planning. It served as a refresher course on detailed business planning – something he’ll be able to apply when working with his other SCORE clients.
Hendricks’s advice as a SCORE counselor to people considering enrolling in FastTrac is to realize up front that the series requires a significant time commitment. “Expect to devote 3 – 6 hours to research and planning each week in addition to the 3 hours spent in class. If you put forth the effort, you’ll walk away understanding every component that you’ll need to tackle – and you’ll know what you need to do to be successful.”
The Line Starts Here
The First Step FastTrac series offers tremendous value to entrepreneurs who want to make smart decisions as they explore their business ideas. It enables participants to look at their potential businesses from every angle and guides them in objectively assessing their strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps even more importantly, it gives them a network of peers and business experts to help them deal with the ups and downs that are a natural part of the entrepreneurial adventure.
SCORE Lancaster will offer the FastTrac program again in the fall of 2010. For additional information, email SCORE at email@example.com or call the SCORE Office at 717-397-3092 weekdays between 10 am and 2 pm.