Strategies: Small business centers help in tragedies

— -- Ten years ago, airplanes hit the twin towers and tragedy hit our nation.

Our economy took a huge hit, too, including small businesses. Thousands of small companies went out of business immediately. And as the overall economy went in to a slump, millions of small businesses all across the country struggled in 9/11's aftermath.

It was a tough time. But many individuals and organizations rolled up their sleeves, went to work, and did what they could to help individuals and our nation recover.

Personally, I observed the work of one group of people — a group that didn't get much attention — that devoted itself to helping small companies recover, federal Small Business Development Centers and their counselors. The offices in the New York region set up special centers to help 9/11 small-business victims manage the process of getting back up on their feet.

Throughout the country, the centers worked with businesses affected by 9/11 to counsel them on how to survive.

Now you may know that when a crisis happens — such as a hurricane, an earthquake, a flood, or on Sept. 11, 2001, a terrorist attack — U.S. Small Business Administration loans may become available to help businesses recover.

But what you may not know is that those loans aren't just handed out. Business owners must fill out applications, produce financial documents, and qualify to get these loans or other government help. That can be a daunting process, and as was frequently the case after 9/11, business records are destroyed, making it even more difficult to qualify for critical assistance.

(That's why it's essential that you keep off-site copies of all your financial records.)

In such cases, Small Business Development Centers counselors typically are called on to be on the front lines, helping business owners complete the paperwork and recreate lost records. Most important, because these counselors are trained in business — and often former business owners themselves — they can help devastated business owners re-start and re-energize their companies.

It doesn't take a tragedy for Small Business Development Centers to make a difference in America.

Every day, all across the country, these counselors help entrepreneurs create businesses and create jobs. They work with small American companies to become exporters, improving our balance of trade. They assist entrepreneurs in learning business skills that make them more competitive and productive. They help the unemployed become self-employed.

The cost to the individual? Free. At roughly 1000 centers across the country, nearly a million entrepreneurs a year get in-depth, one-on-one business counseling. Many millions more take workshops, get free market research, use their center's library.

The centers, generally partnerships between the federal government and state universities, depend on federal, state, and sometimes private money to survive.

But in this era of tight state budgets, money has been eliminated or drastically cut.

For example, in California, the nation's most populous state, the SBDC network is fighting for $6 million — or as someone put it, in a state budget of about $100 billion that's just "budget dust." In light of previous budget cuts, last year my company donated more than $250,000 in books to these centers.

But private dollars alone can't save them.

I am a devoted fan of the SBDC network. I once was a client. I attend their national conference and some state and local programs. I know hundreds of counselors and see how hard they train, take classes, and hungrily learn whatever they can to help their clients succeed.

They must take continuing education to keep up on their skills.

Now, these centers aren't very sexy to the media. They're quasi-government agencies and not very flashy. Most centers occupy drab offices, typically in community colleges.

As a result, you may not know that there's one in your community, available to help you and your business grow, survive, add jobs.

It's now popular to bash government and every government program, but I can tell you that these centers are worth every dollar. In fact, Small Business Development Centers generate about $9 for every $1 spent.

They directly help create jobs. We need them.

So, as I remember 9/11, yes, I'll remember the small businesses that were lost. But I'll also remember the small companies that were saved, thanks to the work of an Small Business Development counselor.

Rhonda Abrams is president of The Planning Shop and publisher of books for entrepreneurs. Her newest is the 5th edition of The Successful Business Plan: Secrets and Strategies. Register for Rhonda's free newsletter at and "like" The Planning Shop on Facebook for updates. For an index of her columns, go to Twitter: Copyright Rhonda Abrams 2011.