When he launched his decorative fountain business more than two years ago, Brian Ray said it would have been easy to get overwhelmed with everything from licensing to getting products to the market.
“Just about everything is an obstacle,” he said.
Because starting a business is complex, Ray tapped the expertise of an experienced small-business mentor through a nonprofit organization called SCORE Fox Valley. It’s a national organization comprised mainly of retired CEOs and managers that offers free business advice to startups or grow established companies.
Ray said his business, Geneva-based Innovative Fountains Inc., has benefited from SCORE Fox Valley, and he maintains a relationship with his mentor today.
“I relied heavily on SCORE,” he said. “I believe SCORE helped me get where I am today.”
Ray said he developed cordless technology so decorative fountains didn’t have to be tethered to an outlet. But when he finished mapping out his business plan, he knew he had to take a different route.
“My costs were five times more than what I thought they were going to be,” he said. “That was a game changer.”
SCORE offers services to an array of businesses, including nonprofit organizations.
Peg Coker wanted Literacy Volunteers Fox Valley – a nonprofit that teaches English as a Second Language – to position itself for greater growth, but she wasn’t sure where to start.
Coker, executive director of the St. Charles-based nonprofit, said she reached out to SCORE because she wanted a view from someone who wasn’t part of day-to-day operations.
Krish Raju of Geneva, who has been a SCORE mentor for two years, worked with the organization to expand its reach.
“We took some deep dives into some key areas and came back and said, this is what this looks like from the outside looking in,” he said. “The director took [a report] to the board, and some [board members] were surprised.”
Raju said the report included a full picture of how the organization could grow, sustain that growth and better utilize its resources.
“They looked at the processes we’re currently using to tutor students and encourage both [students and tutors] to continue with the program longer and have greater success,” Coker said.
She said the organization’s board still is reviewing suggestions from SCORE mentors, and Literacy Volunteers Fox Valley has made small adjustments after mentors stepped in. She said with SCORE’s help, the organization is on the path toward expanding its staff and serving more clients.
“It was a tremendous experience,” she said. “They have such a depth of knowledge and are able to look from the outside in.”
Another nonprofit that benefited from SCORE’s advice is the Association for Individual Development.
Mayer Smith, business services representative for the organization, said SCORE helped the organization map out a profitable business plan to put people with developmental disabilities to work. Smith said the organization’s reach stretches from Elgin to Yorkville, and about one-third of its clients come from the Tri-Cities area.
He said the 2008-09 economy made it difficult for people with developmental disabilities to find jobs, so he reached out to SCORE to figure out a business model to create sustainable jobs. Mentors helped him develop a business plan in sorting recyclables, which today includes electronics recycling.
“It’s grown three-fold since it started two years ago,” Smith said.
Raju said as a mentor, it’s important to be straightforward so business owners know exactly what they can expect as they work toward their goals. He said that sometimes results in blunt advice.
“We are there to help them, but we have to be honest when an idea won’t generate any income,” he said. “Some don’t like the input we provide because it’s very honest and open.”
Ray said that’s one thing he appreciates about SCORE mentors – they provide advice, and it’s up to the business owner to decide whether to follow through. His mentor’s advice helped him save a lot of hassle and money.
“They’re really big on walking you through a business plan. They ask, what’s your value to the market and what makes you different?” he said. “There are so many different facets in this. They’re real good about trying to keep you focused.”