After yet another meal slid across her bamboo tray and spilled, Ashley Hatcher had an idea for a new invention - spill-proof trays.
"I think about inventions all the time," said the pharmaceutical representative from Columbus, Ga. And this time she took her idea to an artist who helped her design LappersTM - colorful plastic trays with removable slip-proof silicone inserts.
She realized that the trays could be the foundation for a new business but ran into a wall when she tried to borrow money for an initial production run.
To learn how to start her business, Hatcher enrolled in Entrepreneur Boot Camp offered by the UGA Small Business Development Center. That's when she met Mark Lupo, an SBDC consultant who helped her write a business plan in a series of one-on-one consulting sessions.
"I had no idea how to write a plan that projected gross sales or net income," Hatcher said. "After working with Mark, I presented my plan to the bank and got a loan to start my business, Archer Innovations."
Clients like Hatcher agree that top-notch consulting and close personal attention mark the programs and services offered by the SBDC, started 30 years ago to help small businesses succeed.
The language of small business development - "seed" capital, business "incubator," "growing" a business - may reveal its early agricultural roots. However, the state is not talking peanuts when it measures the impact of small businesses, which account for more than 97 percent of all Georgia companies and employ nearly half of the state's non-farm, private sector workers, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. In 2005, small businesses accounted for nearly $190 billion of Georgia's economic activity.
One expanding business is Sacred Journey Hospice in McDonough. In 2002, Robin Stanton and her partners opened the hospice with help from Cecil McDaniel, area director at the Clayton State University SBDC. The partners - four nurses and a physician's assistant - were well versed in patient care but knew little about managing a company.
"Cecil taught us a lot about running a business," Stanton said. "The business plan was the biggest hurdle. Now we count on his general support. He's a big cheerleader for us."
Today, Sacred Journey Hospice is a $2.5 million in-patient facility and McDaniel continues to provide advice as the business plans future expansions.
New training programs such as FastTrac®, SmallBizU and ExportGA also help small business owners expand operations, improve products and services, and enhance management practices.
The new SBDC programs also address changes in small business ownership, especially the increase in better-educated women and minority entrepreneurs who are already business-oriented. Today's Georgia SBDC Network continues to apply lessons from the past to meet the state's future business needs.
"Many challenges that start-up owners face are the same today as they were in 1977, when the SBDC began," said Allan Adams, SBDC director. "However, more existing businesses are asking us to help them get to the next level. We help strengthen these businesses by offering tools and advice they can use to expand and improve their operations."