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VENTURA COUNTY BUSINESS | THE BUSINESS BEAT

Program Presents Entrepreneurs With a Challenge

Mentoring: County development center offers seminars and counseling to help small-business owners grow their enterprises.

April 20, 1999|COLL METCALFE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Launching your own business is a bit like jumping into the deep end of a pool.

Without knowledge of tax codes, money management, marketing and the like, small-business owners can quickly find themselves in way over their heads.

Which is one reason there's now a waiting list of local entrepreneurs looking to participate in the Challenge mentoring program being offered by the North Los Angeles and Ventura County small-business development centers.

With a long list of expert professionals on hand to assist area business owners, the program offers intensive counseling on the kinds of strategies the entrepreneurs will need to employ as they navigate their companies toward a successful future.

"Being a business owner is a lonely existence, because there aren't a lot of people they can turn to to get the kind of advice and help they need to overcome what, most of the time, are very common problems," said Wilma Berglund, director of the North Los Angeles SBDC. "What Challenge does is put them into a group with other business owners where they can pick each others' brains and discuss ideas and get advice from people who really know."

The six-month program, which will begin next week in Ventura County and is free to all participants, is limited to 40 people.

Those 40 are broken down into eight groups of five business owners who will meet twice a week with an expert to discuss the problems each is facing and to think about the future of their enterprises.

In addition, program organizers hope that participants will use the seminars as a networking tool to develop lasting business partnerships.

"Overall, I think one of the program's greatest assets is that it gets business owners to think long-term," Berglund said. "Running a business is hard work, and a lot of the time [business owners] get bogged down in the day-to-day operations and don't think six months or a year into the future. . . . With this they're forced to."

Modeled after an award-winning economic development program started by the Los Angeles SBDC in 1992, Challenge is funded through a combination of state and federal grants as well as a block grant from the city of Ventura.

Organizers said the program's overall aim is to strengthen the county's businesses by teaching entrepreneurs how to be better businesspeople.

"It's really just corporate counseling," said Joseph Huggins, director of the Ventura County SBDC. "But it's very intensive and covers a lot of ground."

Nomi Wagner has been self-employed for the past 20 years, but the basics of business administration have never gotten any easier, she said.

For the past two years, the Oxnard artist has been trying to get her Nomi Wagner Commissioned Paintings and Drawings off the ground but has run into problems.

She hopes that the Challenge program will help her find solutions.

"The real problem for me is that I can't seem to find that balance between the business end of things and the creative side of it," said Wagner, who makes paintings and drawings as well as digital reproductions from photographs.

"There's just too much left-brain stuff, and I can't do my art if I'm spending all my time trying to market the business better."

She hopes she'll get an idea on how to publicize her services and touch up her Web site as well as stake out a future for her business through goal setting and efficient business management.

In addition, she's looking for criticism from other business owners on what's working and what's not with her business.

"Getting that perspective, I think, is going to be really helpful," she said.

Unlike some other business seminars, the Challenge program is highly structured and very strict.

If participants miss a meeting, they are expelled from the program. They are also required to demonstrate progress through weekly assignments agreed upon by the group.

Although the Challenge program has no more space for the coming session, organizers said they will continue the program with another seminar series beginning in July, for which more than a dozen businesses already are enrolled.

"We all think it's one of the most effective tools we have to accomplish our mission," Berglund said. "So I imagine we'll keep it going as long as there are businesses that need it."

For more information about the program, call the county SBDC at 658-2688.

Coll Metcalfe can be reached by e-mail at coll.metcalfe@latimes.com or by phone at 446-4777.

* GOOD WORKERS: How to avoid the four most common hiring mistakes. B6

* MORE BUSINESS NEWS: B6-10

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