BREWER – An eager crowd of prospective and existing small-business owners gathered Tuesday night at the Muddy Rudder restaurant to learn about organizations dedicated to getting small businesses started and keeping them afloat.
More than 70 people packed the second-floor room to listen to a panel of six local business counselors and financial planners offer advice, answer questions and describe how they help budding businesses.
The free event was sponsored by TD Banknorth, Cumulus Broadcasting, WVOM 103.9 FM, Merrill Bank and Regal Press.
By a show of hands, most attendees indicated they had been in business for at least one year, and a few more had been in business for less than a year. Three or four were still thinking about starting a business.
Deb Neuman, director of the Target Technology Incubator at the University of Maine and host of the “Back to Business” radio show on WVOM 103.9 FM, facilitated the panel and took questions from the audience.
Ann McAlhany, certified business counselor at the Maine Small Business Development Center in Bangor, said SBDC offers free monthly workshops on starting a small business. The center also offers one-on-one counseling for most aspects of planning and managing a business.
McAlhany cautioned fledgling business owners not to immediately price their product and services lower than their competitors.
“Value your services. Don’t underprice them,” McAlhany said. “Even if you lose a few customers because you’ve raised your prices, you can still bring in the same revenue you had before.”
Rebecca Ruggiero, employer assistance representative from the Career Advancement Services division of Training and Development Corp. in Bangor, said her services are also free. She said TDC provides employment referrals and has rooms available to conduct meetings and interviews.
“Ask questions,” Ruggiero suggested. “If you have a question as a small-business owner, there are probably many, many others with the same question.”
Jennifer Brooks, community relations representative at Penquis Community Action Program, lauded Penquis’ Incubator Without Walls program, a training program designed to teach everything from writing a business plan to designing a Web site to people serious about starting a business.
Brooks said Penquis also has a savings plan program for startup businesses and offers loans with interest rates similar to those at local banks.
Marion Syversen, president of Norumbega Financial and a small-business owner herself, encouraged audience members to consider opening Individual Retirement Accounts for themselves and their employees. Syversen offers financial planning for businesses and individuals.
“Having a retirement plan is easier and cheaper than you think,” Syversen said. “Please take care of yourselves. There are mutual funds that require as little as $25 a month.”
And Jay Pearl, a financial associate at the Bangor office of Financial Benefit Services Corp., said his statewide business offers financial planning and employee benefit and pension plans.
Getting health insurance for small businesses isn’t as hard as most people think, especially with health savings accounts and the state’s Dirigo Health program, Pearl said.
The panel highly recommended that everyone write a business plan.
“The most important reason to do a business plan is for you – you have to prove to yourself that this in fact can work,” Neuman said.
A solid business plan includes a description of the new business endeavor, a marketing and management strategy and financial projections. Writing it should not be an overwhelming process, Neuman said.
“We’ve seen good business plans that are 100 pages and good business plans that are five pages,” Brooks said.
Steve Badger, owner of Badger Environmental Safety and Training, carried a handful of brochures and pamphlets as he left the forum, and said he would review all the information to see what resources he could use.
“I think it was great,” he said, referring to the forum.
When Badger opened in Brewer three years ago, company officials didn’t know about the resources available to them, said Cindy Austin, company officer.
“We started out making mistakes,” Austin said. “I think it’s wonderful that there is a group to go to.”
D’arcy Main-Boyington, Brewer economic development director, said she was pleased with the turnout.
“Ninety-eight percent of businesses in Brewer are small, but 98 percent of our time in the economic development office is spent with large businesses,” said Main-Boyington. “We wanted to make sure we’re giving attention to small businesses, and that they’re getting the opportunity to answer their questions and grow and expand.”