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FastTrac Program Puts Small-Business Owners One Step Ahead

April 29, 1998|VICKI TORRES

It was a typical small-business awards dinner at USC's Town and Gown auditorium on a recent work night. Teary-eyed business owners cradled their plaques and, voices shaking with emotion, expressed their gratitude for the recognition.

The accomplishments were small by corporate standards--for one company, an increase in sales in one year from $60,000 to $650,000; for another, the creation of a CD product called a "virtual resume"; and for another, the addition of 22 employees.

But they were giant steps for these struggling business owners, graduates of FastTrac training, arguably the nation's premier hands-on, small-business program.

Born 12 years ago at the request of then-Mayor Tom Bradley, who asked USC to develop a business community outreach program, FastTrac today is an international program that trains business owners in more than 100 locations in 41 states. There are also branches in Sweden, Canada and, soon, Australia.

Overall, 30,000 small-business owners will have taken the training by July. The companies vary from sophisticated high-tech and biotech firms in the business triangle of Raleigh-Durham, N.C., to village Eskimos in Alaska reached by instructors who travel by floatplane.

Pretty impressive for a program launched by a couple of business professors armed only with a rough outline and the desire to help small businesses.

"We had no idea what we were starting," said Mack Davis, one of FastTrac's founders and now director of development at its Denver headquarters.

"We were just going to do this little outreach program in L.A.," he said. "I didn't think it was going to get where it is today."

In general, FastTrac is a basics course designed for those who need immediate help with their businesses and who lack the time, money or inclination for traditional course offerings at university business programs.

"Entrepreneurship is not rocket science," Davis joked. "But we don't tell the MBAs that."

When Davis and Dick Buskirk, now deceased and the former head of USC's Entrepreneurial Training Program, conceived the program in Los Angeles in 1986, they had planned on two classes with space for 30 students each, then sponsored an entrepreneur day on campus to publicize it.

They sent fliers to South-Central Los Angeles churches and chambers of commerce, expecting a couple hundred people to show up. Instead, 1,600 crammed into a USC auditorium. To handle the demand, they regrouped and devised five seminars, which promptly drew 500 participants to each.


High turnout was repeated in Denver when business professor Courtney Price, now FastTrac president, duplicated the program there. Since then, FastTrac has received major funding from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, and has since established its own foundation--the Entrepreneurial Education Foundation.

Changes are still being made to the program. Soon to come will be a strengthening of Internet, computer software-hardware and international trade components, plus a version of the program for use by corporations seeking to be more entrepreneurial.

Price calls FastTrac a toolbox filled with business basics that can be adapted to any industry. FastTrac I, a nine-week course that focuses on defining a business concept, researching it and determining its feasibility, is designed for novices. FastTrac II, an 11-week course on marketing, operations, product improvement and growth, is for owners operating businesses for two or more years.

For small businesses like Rebecca B. & Co., a clothing manufacturer in Manhattan Beach, FastTrac can make a big difference.

"I had failed in [retail] business before because I made every mistake in the world," said owner Rebecca Bergman. "I didn't do any research, I put myself in the wrong location with no walk-in traffic and I sold my home and paid cash for everything and went through my nest egg."


FastTrac training enabled Bergman to recognize her mistakes and correct them. For awhile, she sold her line of clothing to department stores. Despite the training, Bergman admits she is still struggling to find financing and a new outlet for her clothes.

The riddle of who makes it as an entrepreneur and who doesn't is not always answerable, even with FastTrac training. Some of last week's award winners at USC, though enthusiastic and hard-working, have yet to turn a profit.

Although FastTrac graduates show a higher rate of success than other businesses, the training is no guarantee. Davis calls it the ambiguity at the heart of running a business. Success is a case-by-case situation with no exact formula, and the FastTrac program reflects that, with an emphasis on counseling, peer review and in-class instruction.

"There will never be a great book written on entrepreneurship because there's too much ambiguity; it would be 10,000 pages long," Davis said.

"If you can't live with ambiguity, don't be an entrepreneur."

For more information on FastTrac, call (800) 689-1740 or visit the group's Web site at

Times staff writer Vicki Torres can be reached at

(213) 237-6553 or at

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