Getting down to business

Small Business Development Centers transforming ideas into reality

One day I had an idea.
“Where did it come from, why is it here?” I wondered.
“What do you do with an idea?”

The opening sentences of “What Do You Do With An Idea,” a children’s book by Kobi Yamada.

Pryor Jordan had an idea. While working at a Jackson County computer repair shop, he noticed that customers frequently asked if the store could repair cellular telephones, especially ones with cracked or shattered screens. Watching individual after individual turned away, he wondered if he could turn broken phones into a business.

Jordan began learning about phone repair and started replacing telephone screens on a makeshift workstation in his apartment, but he still wondered what else to do with his idea. That’s when Jordan, like hundreds of other potential entrepreneurs, turned to a local source for ideas, analysis, resources and even encouragement — a Small Business Development Center (SBDC).

For 30 years, Small Business Development Centers in Illinois have been assisting potential and growing businesses with everything from developing business plans to company strategies, and the advice always is free.

“The mission of the Small Business Development Center is to provide professional guidance for business growth,” explains Mark Petrilli, State Director for the Illinois SBDC, part of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. “We help existing business and also pre-venture clients to help them start up, develop and grow their business. We provide confidential one-on-one advice and guidance at no cost to them.”

With more than 400 SBDC centers nationwide and three dozen in Illinois, the assistance is always close by.

For Jordan, help was as near as the SBDC at Southern Illinois University.

“I started getting some help and advice from people that knew something about running a business, because I really didn’t,” he recalls. “I talked to them and they gave me some homework and lots of things to think about. I was spinning my wheels and didn’t know what to do. I was getting ahead of myself, and they would reign me in, keep me on task and encourage me to take baby steps.”

About the same time he turned to the SBDC for help, he moved his business, called Saluki Screen Repair, from the kitchen table to a small office near the center. Less than a year later, he opened a storefront in Carbondale, drawing in screen and phone repair business from across the region. Today, he employs a small team of technicians and is considering expanding to a second location. He gives the SBDC much of the credit for his success.

“It’s great to have someone who is there to take ideas and listen to them; someone who has a real interest in helping start something in their community,” he says.

Cooperation helps create 9,000 Illinois jobs
Small Business Development Centers work through a unique cooperative program of federal and state governments along with local entities.

“We exist with federal dollars that come through the Small Business Administration. There are also state dollars through the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and then each office is funded differently with local dollars as well,” Carol Nichols of the Illinois SBDC at Danville Area Community College says. She adds that at the local level, some SBDCs are affiliated with universities, others (like hers) with community colleges, and still others partner with economic development offices or chambers of commerce.

Petrilli says the return on the public sector dollars is significant.

“In our state, studies have shown that the return for every dollar is about $4,” he explains, adding that the return means more businesses and jobs for the state. In fact, in calendar year 2013, the Illinois SBDC reported 658 new businesses and expansions and more than 9,000 new jobs as a result of their services. These new ventures and jobs are especially important for rural areas, where the goal, Petrilli says, is to make SBDC facilities and guidance very accessible to foster further development.

“It is important for us to have centers throughout the state, and by doing that, I think we have had a much greater impact in the rural areas, where it is so vital,” he says. “In many of these rural areas, the SBDC is the primary source of business guidance, information and training for those who are looking to start a business or who have a business they want to grow.”

Like a business partner and member of the family
The services offered by Small Business Development Centers are as varied and diverse as the business ideas that come to them. Several of the Illinois offices have international trade programs to help existing businesses find new markets overseas. Some also offer assistance with obtaining government contracts or with manufacturing.

“I think a lot of people look at SBDCs as a place just for start-up businesses, but we have a whole lot to offer beyond that,” Greg Bouhl of the Illinois SBDC at Southern Illinois University points out. “And don’t let the word small in our name fool you. To us, small is any company with fewer than 500 clients.”

Bouhl says SBDCs offer a variety of services with advice and guidance from other business owners.

“Many advisers at SBDCs have owned their own businesses. We have the academic and real-world experience of actually running businesses.”

That means help for existing businesses as well. Jordan says he still meets with advisers from the SBDC to help his growing business. Bouhl says he is still working with some clients he first helped 14 years ago.

“In a lot of cases, we’re almost like a partner or a member of the family,” he adds. “It is very satisfying because you get to be part of someone’s dream and help them reach their milestones.”

Ken Cooley of Odgen-based ShapeMaster Inc. has reached several milestones for his plastics molding and fabrication company with help from the Champaign County Economic Development Corporation’s SBDC. The office assisted the company in obtaining a new line of credit 11 years ago. In late 2013, the office again helped ShapeMaster grow.

“As a small local manufacturing company, we had never really considered the possibility of exporting. When we received a request to ship internationally, we did not know where to start, but we knew just who to contact,” Cooley says, referring to the SBDC. “We really needed some help and they were there. It was huge.”

Honest business guidance
Many of the Small Business Development Centers offer regular workshops on starting new businesses or finding financing. Others partner with outside groups like chambers of commerce to present on-going trainings for businesses of all sizes, but a bulk of the services provided are one-on-one sessions with new and established business people. Often in these sessions, there are as many questions as answers.

“In our advising sessions we try to determine what the entrepreneur’s questions really are,” explains Kevin Lust of the SBDC at Lincoln Land College in Springfield. “We often encounter people who come in with one idea of what they need and they soon realize what they need is something else. The people who get businesses started are making decisions and making trade-offs in all areas of their lives. Part of advising is pointing out the likely outcomes based on our experiences and all of the possible consequences.”

Ted Gutierrez of the Southern Illinois University center says Small Business Development Centers offer honest guidance.

“It’s my job to ask the tough questions as well as to answer some tough questions,” he says.

“Sometimes it’s eye-opening for people, but I would rather have somebody sit here with their eyes wide open than set themselves up for failure down the road.”

“Our role,” Lust adds, “is to help people discover obstacles before they actually face them so they can be prepared to deal with challenges when they come. These are the American success stories. There are a lot of businesses in business today because they were able to get the guidance and support that they needed.”

Gutierrez continues, “This is great work. It’s an opportunity to truly help those people who are truly struck with the entrepreneurial bug, who want to work for themselves and who want to build a legacy they can pass down to their family.”

The services and advice from Small Business Development Centers can be a key to success. Just ask Pryor Jordan.

“Without them, I don’t know where my business would be,” he says. “I’d probably still be in my apartment.”


Myths about Small Business Development Center:

Small Business Development Centers are only for new business ventures.

SBDCs services are available to any Illinois business or entrepreneur as long as the business has fewer than 500 employees.

Small Business Development Centers are great sources for funding.

SBDCs do not have any grant or loan programs. They do, however, assist clients in finding investors and lenders as well as developing the necessary documents to solicit funding.

Small Business Development Centers are expensive.

All SBDC services are completely free of charge.

To find a Small Business Development Center in your area, or for more information visit

(Photo by Aimee Wigfall)