How many of us have had a great idea for starting a small business, only to dismiss it because we didn’t know where to begin or how to get start-up funding? And how many of us also have been surprised a few months later to find that an entrepreneur with a fine-tuned business plan and deeper pockets turned the very same idea into a promising startup?
It doesn’t have to be that way, say members of SCORE—Counselors to America’s Small Businesses, as it is called by its resource partner, the Small Business Association. No matter your goal—launching a business, managing it or growing it—one of the Pittsburgh SCORE chapter’s 50 mentors can lend a guiding hand and point you in the right direction. And the 501c3 nonprofit services are free.
“SCORE” is like a personal trainer but at no cost—a free second opinion,” says Loren Smith, Elatan Drive. An Indiana native and IU grad, Smith spent 40 years in the medical sales and marketing before moving to Pittsburgh in 2016 and becoming a SCORE mentor. Clients can be confident they will receive professional advice, Smith adds. Mentors are thoroughly vetted, go through two to three months of training and must subscribe to a code of conduct, ethics and confidentiality. They can’t earn money from clients, and they can’t use clients’ ideas, even if the client decides not to move forward with the plan.
SCORE, which stands for Service Corps of Retired Executives, is a vital outlet for retired entrepreneurs and executives, says outgoing chair Mark Trumbull, Avon Drive, but any man or woman with time and talent to volunteer is welcome. Trumbull is a retired consumer packaged goods brand and marketing strategist who spent most of his career with the Heinz and Nielsen companies. Currently, he is working to establish a small packaged goods business of his own, but he will continue working with SCORE, even as he passes the leadership role to Mark Fallek and Chris Cullen.
The Pittsburgh chapter, at age 50, is a charter member of SCORE, which was founded under the Lyndon Johnson administration and now has nearly 400 chapters and 13,000 mentors nationally. Services provided to local businesses are measured by the number of mentoring sessions and workshop attendees during the year, Fallek says. Last year the Pittsburgh chapter provided nearly 2,100 services.
David Rosenblatt, Bower Hill Road, throws out an equally impressive number: “Our 50 Pittsburgh mentors represent 2,000 years of experience,” he says. Rosenblatt, who has 53 years’ business experience, has mentored 650 SCORE clients over the past eight years both here and in Naples, Florida, where he spends the winters.
He has built businesses from the ground up and bought two franchises. He owned car washes, dry cleaning companies and was involved in trucking, real estate and construction. His specialty is banking and brokerage.
“But you don’t have to be an expert,” he says of SCORE volunteers. “My previous experiences have been a great source of information, as experience is the best teacher.”
Fallek and Cullen will, among other things, work “to broaden to our basic marketing programs through communicating local stories of interest to our client base,” Fallek says. A SCORE volunteer for three years, Fallek has worked on a number of projects. He shares one of his success stories:
“A client wished to leave the corporate world and establish a ‘wellness’ business,” he says. “Her personal history included being well overweight (258 pounds), and through her own dedication and change of habits, [she] lost 120 pounds. Today, she is a speaker at events and business outings, provides individual coaching and provides wellness programs at local businesses. A major part of our work together focused on her marketing program, business strategy and providing support and guidance through the usual start-up bumps.”
“There are few aspects of life more exhilarating than getting a business off to a successful start or accelerating the growth of an established business,” says Trumbull. “Identifying a consumer or customer need and offering a solution to satisfy it by adding value that did not exist before is a significant accomplishment.”
Trumbull added value to Michelle Van Bibber’s business, when he helped her create a business plan in 2008 for Ciao Bella Jewelry. A South Fayette resident, Van Bibber started selling hand-crafted jewelry from her home when after years working in science and medical research at UPMC, she became a stay-at-home mom. She called SCORE on a friend’s recommendation, and working with Trumbull, developed the concept of a wholesale business where she could connect with buyers via regional trade shows and national conferences and thus distribute her custom-designed jewelry all around the country.
Today, you’ll find Ciao Bella jewelry in gift shops at aquariums and zoos, boutiques and resorts, caverns, distilleries, gardens, museums, historical sites, campgrounds and many other well-known tourist destinations. Among Van Bibber’s current clients are the National Wildlife Foundation, the U.S. Marine Corps and Dollywood. As the company grows, she continues to consult with Trumbull from time to time as new issues arise. Recently, he helped her create a job description for a new employee.
Even with free expert advice, it’s hard to get a success story, the mentors agree. “There is a [large] fallout rate,” says Smith, “People become daunted. Life plans change. “
Smith currently is working with Missy Nabors, Youngwood Road, on her plans for a company called “Mandala Everywhere.” Both hope she’ll be one of the success stories.
While working in the nonprofit sector, Nabors noticed the poor design and quality of the merchandise sold or given away at charitable events—hats or T-shirts that likely wouldn’t be worn or used much. If she could design good quality, private label merchandise, she theorized, people would wear it repeatedly. If others noticed a logo on a nice-looking shirt or hat and said, “Oh, I didn’t know you were involved with [put your own favorite nonprofit here], it would raise awareness.
Then, she took her idea a step further. What if the shirt, hat or tote sported not just a logo for the nonprofit but a small patch that, when tapped, would allow people to download an app and donate on the spot. “It would be smaller perpetual donations,” she says, “but [the idea is] turning supporters into brand ambassadors.”
Nabors decided to call the company MandalaEverywhere, because in Celtic and Tibetan tradition, the mandala is a symbol of compassionate community. She developed the business plan from a template but realized she needed more help to move forward. Through LinkedIn, she connected with Smith and SCORE; now MandalaEverywhere is an LLC, and they’re working together on funding and other aspects of a successful launch.
“It has been valuable to get Loren’s input,” says Nabors, the mother of two college sons. “ I needed an objective opinion, so my encouragement wouldn’t be just friends and family saying ‘Great idea!’”
Recently, Smith helped Nabors develop her “elevator speech,” a concise pitch to use at conferences such as the Entrepreneurial Summit for Venture Capitalists at Denison University. “Mandala is sort of like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,” says Smith. “Instead of wearing Nike, you wear a logo for something you care about.”
A look at Nabors’ sample logo merchandise suggests she’s succeeded in creating high quality, wearable products.
She still has a way to go, but “She’s laying the groundwork,” Smith says confidently. Her website provides a look at her business model, purpose and goals, and she plans a first quarter 2019 launch.
With SCORE’s professional help, Nabors is headed in the right direction.