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VENTURA COUNTY BUSINESS | THE BUSINESS BEAT

Lending Struggling Entrepreneurs a Hand

County's Small Business Development Center helps owners with everything from getting money to remembering names.

November 10, 1998|COLL METCALFE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was just after William Rushing had the idea that he ran straight into a brick wall.

The idea? Opening an art gallery.

The brick wall? Opening an art gallery.

So, like hundreds of other stymied, would-be entrepreneurs, he and his wife, Toni, turned to the Ventura County Small Business Development Center for advice.

What they got was a whole lot more than they bargained for.

"You'd think that finding that one, perfect idea is going to be the hardest part, but it's not," said William Rushing, a 32-year-old Ventura resident who runs the Coqui Gallery on Ventura's Main Street. "It's everything that comes after."

Taking that idea to the SBDC, which assists small-business owners with everything from securing capital to remembering names, allowed the Rushings to realize their dream of owning a gallery of Caribbean arts and crafts.

Located in an airy office off Ralston Street in Ventura, the SBDC helps small-business owners and would-be start-ups navigate the often rough seas of entrepreneurship, usually at no charge to users.

Funded by the U.S. Small Business Administration and the state, the center has been lauded by clients who said it gave them the know-how to do everything from taking a product to the global marketplace to keeping them from going under.

"There's not any one thing that we do here," said SBDC Director Joseph Huggins. "It's everything. . . . Any question a business operator has, we'll try to answer."

There are few endeavors as challenging, problematic and satisfying as starting and operating a business.

But taking an idea from conversation to operation takes smarts, as Huggins puts it, requiring entrepreneurs to be experts in unfamiliar disciplines.

"A small-business owner has to wear many hats, and a lot of them aren't necessarily going to fit," Huggins said. "Not everyone is going to know how to balance their books or qualify for a bank loan or draw up a business plan. . . . That's where [the SBDC] comes in."

With a library brimming with business manuals, Rolodexes full of valuable contacts and volunteers with the experience to guide clients through such complex tasks as creating legal contracts, the SBDC is, according to those who have used it, a priceless resource for area businesses.

For the Rushings, help meant developing a business plan, arranging capital and being coached on the necessities of running a business such as the Coqui Gallery.

"They were there right from the beginning and saw us through the whole process," Rushing said. "I don't think it's something that we could have done without them."

Since opening in June, he said, business has thrived, with profits growing exponentially.

"We've doubled our business every month," Rushing said.

For others, like Emilio Bole, turning to the SBDC was a matter of necessity.

After several years of success, business at Bole's Simi Valley store, Florencia Fiume, started to slide.

The wedding dress manufacturer and wholesaler watched business fall from more than $3 million in 1989 to less than $1 million two years later.

In an effort to balance his ever-worsening accounts, Bole cut his office space in half, trimmed expenses and laid off most of his employees.

It wasn't enough.

"It was depressing. . . . I couldn't figure out what was going on," Bole said.

"I was looking for problems on the inside, but I learned [from the SBDC] that those kinds of problems, the ones that make you go broke, are usually found on the outside."

At the behest of his wife and business partner, Marta, Bole enrolled in a marketing seminar at the center and adopted strategies to increase his business.

For one, he stopped making ornate gowns, which often took weeks to prepare, and began importing them for sale to bridal stores across the country.

In addition, he embarked on an ambitious campaign to market his business through newsletters and one-page monthly catalogs showcasing the latest formal wear.

"It stirred me up," Bole said of the seminar. "I started looking at the business in a completely different way. . . . I learned that I was spending too much time working inside my business and not enough time working for it."

And so far, the slide that put his business on the brink of insolvency has stopped. Business has increased during the past two months, and Bole is breathing a bit easier.

"It's nice to come in and see $20,000 worth of orders hanging from the fax machine," he said. "It's not something that I would have expected to see, and I don't think it would have happened if it weren't for [the SBDC]."

FYI

The Ventura County Small Business Development Center is at 5700 Ralston St., Suite #310, in Ventura. The phone number is 658-2688.

Every other month, the center hosts a four-part workshop titled "Business Basics," which details everything from developing a business plan to marketing concepts to financial planning. The cost of the workshop is $15 a session or $50 for all four. Most other seminars hosted by the center cost $15.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Beginning today, Ventura County business news has moved from the financial pages to Section B and is adding a weekly feature, The Business Beat, on a local business, entrepreneur or trend. Ventura County Review is on B6 today, with Ventura County Roundup on B7. Other business news and charts appear on B8 and B9.

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