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Free and Low-Cost Consulting Options for Your Small Business

By Cyndia Zwahlen

Small businesses that use business consultants grow faster and add more jobs than those that don’t, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. And they stay in business longer. But the cost, which can run into hundreds or thousands of dollars for a single project, puts for-profit consultants out of reach for many small business owners.

There is an alternative: Free and low-cost business consultants and mentors available through a national public-private ecosystem that your small company can tap into.

It’s a web of support created by government agencies, nonprofits, universities, community colleges and corporate donors. Their goal is to help your small business grow so you can help the economy grow. Advice is available for every stage of your business from pre-startup through launch and into the challenges faced by existing companies and onto mergers and acquisition advice. Volunteer business professionals, retired executives and subject experts can offer you a wide range of guidance on management, marketing and financial topics.

We’ve put together a list of the main players that offer free and low-cost consulting resources to help your small business succeed.

What types of businesses are a good fit for consulting? When?

Before opening your doors: Consultants can help vet and develop your business idea, guide your market research efforts or walk you through getting business licenses or permits you might need. (Did you know a business in Chicago has to have a special city permit to have a commercial driveway?)

Startups:Get help with business planning or technology commercialization, among other topics. Centers also offer pre-loan preparation and business training. For example, entrepreneurs who complete the Business Start-Up Certificate program offered by the Chicago Small Business Center can apply for low-interest, no-fee Entrepreneur Loans from PrivateBank.

New entrepreneurs: Boost your skills with help on business and management basics. Learn to leverage social media and manage cash flow. In addition to in-person consulting, the centers often offer industry-specific workshops or courses, such as Retailing 101 and Strong Foundation for Successful Restaurants.

Experienced business: You might tap into advice consultants can provide on human resources best practices, government contracts, exporting or how to find expansion and growth capital.

Small Business Development Centers

What: Small Business Development Centers are staffed by business experts who are often former business owners or executives. The centers are funded by a combination of federal money through the Small Business Administration, as well as state economic development money, support from community development nonprofits and donations from corporations and financial institutions.

Offers: Free, confidential in-person business consulting on a one-time or ongoing basis. Also: business workshops and online classes.

Best for: Pre-startups, new businesses and existing companies. These business development centers are set up to help you at every stage of your business.

Cost:  Free: One-on-one business counseling meetings.

Centers also provide free online webinars and video training, low-cost ($25 – $50) local workshops and onsite multi-week business courses that typically cost $50 to $250.

Contact: Find the closest center to you on the SBA’s SBDC webpage.

SCORE Business Mentors

What: SCORE is the smaller but better-known sister organization to the Small Business Development Centers. SCORE matches business owners or those who want to own a business with volunteer business people who serve as mentors. The organization, which is funded by the SBA and local donors, started as the Service Corps of Retired Executives a half century ago, but today is powered more by volunteers who are working entrepreneurs and business owners.

Offers: On-demand business mentors that work with you via email. There are also local workshops and online training videos

Best for: Small business owners that are comfortable working remotely with their mentors. Although SCORE does have physical offices, you’ll be able to access a broader range of expertise if you use the national database of volunteer business mentors that covers 62 industries.

Cost: Free

Contact:  Search the mentor database, look for your local SCORE office or request a mentor match online at SCORE.org.

MBA Student Consultants

What: Many university MBA programs use their graduate students to provide free business consulting to local businesses. The students get hands-on experience applying the concepts they learn in school.

Offers: Varies but typical student-consulting projects include research and action-step recommendations for new product launches, the creation of marketing campaigns or financial analysis of potential expansions.

Best for: Small businesses that are comfortable working with a team of graduate students and that can commit to a semester-long project. Business owners usually have to be able to meet with students in the classroom, as well as host them onsite.

MBA students at Rutgers Business School analyzed the inventory process of a toy retailer and recommended more cost effective options, performed a benchmark study for the shipping and trucking terminal operations of a national company and created a business strategy for a new safety product planned for launch in the U.S.

Cost: Typically free, but your small business has to apply and be accepted for a student consulting project. Your business would also typically cover any project-related expenses the students incur. Some schools may charge a fee, but that information can be learned by contacting the local university with which you would like to work.

Contact: Check the websites of the business schools at your local universities for program information and contacts.

MicroMentor

What: An online nonprofit social-enterprise program created by Mercy Corps, a global humanitarian aid group based in Portland, Oregon.

Offers: On-demand, industry- or topic-specific business mentors.

Best for: Small businesses or startups that only need a couple of mentoring sessions and have a problem that lends itself to working with a mentor online.

Cost: Free

Contact: Learn more and find a mentor at micromentor.org.

Women’s Business Centers

What: A smaller national network of business development centers, partly funded by the SBA, meant to level the playing field for women entrepreneurs, especially those who are economically or socially disadvantaged.

Offers: Free business consulting with business advisors that can give you a fresh perspective on your small business challenges and outline your next action steps. Also local workshops, networking events and entrepreneur classes.

Best for: Businesses that are majority-owned by women or women who would like to start or buy a business.

Cost: Free

Contact: Find your local center here.

Veteran’s Business Outreach Centers

What: Entrepreneur development services aimed at eligible veterans interested in self-employment. Available through 20 centers in 17 states.

Offers:  Business counselors, local workshops and online webinars and video training.

Best for: U.S. military veterans as well as active duty service members and members of the National Guard and Reserves interested in self-employment. Veterans’ spouses and survivors are also eligible these services.

Cost: Free

Contact: Find your local center here.

Minority Business Development Agency Business Centers

What: These 40 centers are run by the U.S. Commerce Dept.’s Minority Business Development Agency to create high-growth, globally competitive minority-owned businesses.

Offers: Free business consulting and access to loans and capital for expansion, access to federal and corporate contracts, strategic partners and new domestic and international market expansion strategies.

Best for: Growing minority-owned businesses, or those with the potential for high-growth, that want to expand into new markets, both domestic and global.

Cost:  Free business referrals. Nominal fees (under $100) for specific management consulting or technical business assistance, such as facility leasing assistance.

Contact: Find your local center here.

Additional resources

Does your small business belong to the local chamber of commerce, your industry trade group or a professional association? Most of these business groups offer their members free or low-cost business training, if not one-on-one consulting. Many also have formal or informal mentor programs.

No matter which resource you decide to use to get affordable advice for your small business, remember that it’s up to you to decide if the individual you will work with is a good fit. Some organizations screen their business experts and volunteers more carefully than others do.

It can be hard to carve out the time to find and use the business consulting services available to your small business, even if they are free or low-cost. But taking time to work on your business, not just in it, which is what these services help you do, is the key to success at any stage of your small business.

Image credit: Leeroy