Connecticut Small Business Development Center (CTSBDC) State Director Joe Ercolano spoke with MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price about the services the CTSBDC provides to Connecticut-based small business owners and entrepreneurs to help them start, grow, and flourish throughout the state.
The 40-year program is funded primarily by the U.S. Small Business Administration and the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) and hosted by the University of Connecticut.
NAN PRICE: How does the CTSBDC help Connecticut’s small business community?
JOE ERCOLANO: The CTSBDC has clients in each of the 169 towns in Connecticut. We have 26 locations and 13 advisors who provide no-cost, confidential advising services. We are “taxpayer funded” so we can provide professional advising for free. But we do encourage people to register for our services.
We also provide access to market research and other software-based tools at no or a nominal cost. These reports help clients prepare to have a conversation with a lender, prepare their business plan, and prepare their strategies going forward.
The CTSBDC helps clients achieve particular milestones. Maybe they want to explore markets outside the United States to sell their product or service, or they need to figure out how to get a line of credit to fund their growth and they don’t have any experience approaching a lender. We can help position them to be successful.
NAN: Who are your clients?
JOE: Our clients are anyone who is working to start a business, or an entrepreneur who’s already taken the plunge and is getting off the ground. We do a great deal of work with existing businesses. For example, an owner with 30 years in business looking for some assistance raising money or dealing with an operational issue, or perhaps a business owner who is contemplating expanding into a new market or bringing a new product to market.
We can work with businesses with no more than 1,000 employees; however, most of our clients have less than 100 employees. We would like to work with larger small businesses. Our clients are from a range of industries including consumer products, hospitality, advanced manufacturing, biotech, restaurants, pharmaceutical, and financial software. We’ve seen it all.
NAN: Does the CTSBDC collaborate with other local resources to help Connecticut small businesses?
JOE: We do. If we can’t help someone, we try to make the appropriate referral. We do a lot of partnering with organizations such as chambers of commerce, municipal economic development offices, and other business support organizations. Often, we’ll team up with other organizations to provide workshops.
The CTSBDC is hosted by UConn; however, we’ve done some entrepreneurship projects with other schools including University of Hartford, University of Bridgeport, Fairfield University, Quinnipiac University, and Sacred Heart University. We’re looking at exploring relationships with other schools, too. That helps build and strengthen communities.
NAN: How are small businesses becoming aware of the services the CTSBDC provides?
JOE: We don’t have a big marketing budget, so we have to be active in the community to make sure people are aware of our services. We show up to a lot of events to meet people face-to-face and talk about how we can help business owners.
Word-of-mouth is also important. It helps that small business owners can explain how we can be a benefit to another small business owner. It’s great to have someone be a testament to our value, that’s the best way for people to decide whether they want to take advantage of our services.
Even though we’re confidential and no-cost, people are always cognizant of: Is it worth my time? Their cost is their time, and that’s a very important consideration to a small business owner.
NAN: Tell us more about the time commitment.
JOE: It’s a matter of how much time the client wants to invest. We’ve worked with clients for 10 or more hours. Some clients spend an hour or less with us if they just have a question about a particular situation. Sometimes business owners just need to bounce an idea off someone, and we are happy to do that, too.
We try to help clients with whatever it takes to get them to where they want to be. The client typically understands they have some time to put in on their own, because it all doesn’t necessarily happen in one session. They need to provide input and they’re willingly do that if the outcome is important to them.
We also provide online business training courses in a more than a dozen topics, from creating a business plan to understanding intellectual property. So, business owners can be self-directed in their progress, too.
NAN: How are CTSBDC advisors qualified to provide assistance?
JOE: Good question. We hire with certain criteria in mind—specifically we’re looking for business experience. Our advisors must fundamentally understand business and financing, because such a large percentage of our clients are looking for help with financial management or applying for and securing financing of some type.
In terms of experience or learning, we make every effort to continually upgrade our skills and provide professional development opportunities. Our advisors attend two annual conferences to learn best practices and new ways to solve problems for small businesses.
NAN: What do you enjoy the most about working with small business owners?
JOE: I enjoy helping people succeed to meet their own personal goals. I get a lot of satisfaction seeing business owners’ dreams translate into economic opportunity in the state of Connecticut. We are helping the state, but also individual communities.