NJSBDC program aims to help small businesses get to next level

Deborah Smarth. (File photo)

Trivia couldn’t seem to get easier: It’s called the New Jersey Small Business Development Center, so which does it work with more of — the state’s smallest businesses or companies graduating from that category?

If the answer were obvious, the leaders of the organization wouldn’t question whether people knew enough about it.

“Around 55 percent of the businesses we work with are actually (established and) higher-end businesses that we’re helping get to the next level,” said Deborah Smarth, chief operating officer and associate state director of NJSBDC.

“I think most see us as just supporting pre-venture startups or the really small businesses. It’s much more than that.”

Right now is a good time to get to know what the ostensibly small business-centric organization is doing with more established businesses, given that it is currently building on its interaction with this market segment with a local program unique among the organization’s national network.

The initiative, referred to as the Business Growth Accelerator Program, was created at the behest of a partner organization calling for more resources in strategic planning for larger companies. Participating businesses have to be at more than $1 million in revenue with at least 10 employees as a starting point.

“It’s aimed at someone who has been in business for a while that has a larger number of employees, higher revenue and might be focused on a totally different set of issues than a traditional small business,” Smarth said.

The program began at the SBDC of Northwest Jersey, which encompasses Morris, Sussex and Warren counties. It’s still only available there, though Smarth said it’s being replicated statewide. It may go even farther than that, after being recently presented at a national SBDC network conference.

Dolores Stammer, director at the regional center credited with the initiative’s creation, explained that it’s a detailed assessment and evaluation of a business that ends with a project component that implements a strategic plan guided by the SBDC’s team.

“It’s designed to help a company grow at an accelerated rate without what I call internal implosion — which is basically running out of cash,” Stammer said.

Resolving potential cash flow issues is important for this class of businesses in a way that it might not necessarily be for the SBDC’s expected clients.

“Very small businesses may be looking at a checkbook a lot more closely than some of these rapidly growing businesses, where money is flowing in and out at significant rates,” she added.

Stammer, who has spent years in strategic planning and development in the corporate environment, said that, through the program, a company’s financial situation is assessed alongside everything from its human resources to information technology structure.

(READ MORE from ROI-NJ from Focus On… Small Business.)

The participants are eager to solve any potential snags that may be stagnating a business a couple of million dollars into a growth plan, Stammer said.

“These are people that have been in business for a while, achieved a certain level of success, most of them do it by gosh and by golly,” she said. “Then, they get to a place when they say, ‘How do I get to the next level?’ And, because they’re entrepreneurs, they’re impatient to see results — I know, because I’ve been there-done that.”

Stammer admits this impatience can come into conflict with the program’s requirement that the business owner participating commit to spending a certain amount of time with an adviser.

“Just today, I heard, ‘If you think I’m going to sit through six weeks or six months of training, you’re wrong. I don’t want to be trained — I need to get my business to the next level now,’” Stammer said.

But, she’s convinced that the time spent getting a business owner to think in terms of strategy instead of tactics can get results. She’s full of anecdotes pointing to that, such as a recent retooling of a local company to recycle its commodity product in a way that set it up to become a $20 million business.

“Solving the right problem can grow a company rapidly,” she said.

It’s not to isolate the NJSBDC’s smallest clients that the organization is focusing on bringing businesses to a level beyond that of a conventional small business — it’s more that, as Smarth said, businesses look to the organization for assistance throughout all stages of development.

“They come back to us because they like our service delivery and we stay there as a resource for them,” Smarth said.

NJEDA is about more than just big companies

Going by what it gets the most attention for, the New Jersey Economic Development Authority has its sights set on initiatives that help bring big business into the Garden State. In reality, a greater portion of the organization’s overall efforts are directed at small businesses based in New Jersey.

That’s a narrative that the organization’s president and chief operating officer, Tim Lizura, wants to promote — in a reverse scenario of local Small Business Development Center program leaders’ desire to have their support of higher-end companies better known.

“We look to support businesses at all ends of the spectrum, because a healthy business ecosystem will have both small and large businesses doing well — that’s what we need to really drive economic development,” Lizura said.

Depending on eligibility, small businesses can go to the organization for low-cost financing through the EDA’s lending partners, through an option for minority- or women-owned businesses referred to as the Small Business Fund or through the EDA itself.

The organization is also using pilot programs to approach new ways of supporting small businesses through lease and building improvement reimbursement in places that have been designated as a Garden State Growth Zone, such as Camden. Lizura said the hope is to have targeted retail mainstays of the cities — home today to many vacant storefronts — repopulated.

It’s one of the ways the organizations is fueling small business support, even if those efforts sometimes go overlooked — for reasons Lizura is sympathetic to.

“Every small business owner is pulled in a thousand different directions, so it’s a bit of a challenge to have everything on the radar screen,” he said.

Overview of steps involved in the Business Growth Accelerator Program

  1. The program’s applicant starts by completing a form with the Small Business Development Center that profiles the business.
  2. That form is reviewed and then the business is assigned to an adviser based on areas
    of expertise.
  3. During the first session
    with the adviser, the program’s process is reviewed, an initial project is identified and a work plan is developed.
  4. That initial project is executed and then evaluated, while additional consulting
    is scheduled.
  5. More projects that will further help the company’s growth
    are then identified and executed.

Two ways to join the Business Growth Accelerator Program: