The SCORE offices in St. Louis Park are tucked away in a little office complex, just north of Knollwood Mall; most people would never even know the office is there. However, with its volunteer staff of more than 100 people with immeasurable years of business experience, the mark SCORE leaves is anything but invisible as this dedicated crew helps make aspiring small business owners’ dreams become reality.
When SCORE launched in 1964, it was a small St. Louis Park operation assisting people in the Minneapolis area. (The acronym stands for Service Corps of Retired Executives.) After creating a successful model, SCORE partnered with the Small Business Association (SBA) and now there are more than 340 chapters across the country with more than 11,000 volunteers.
“Minnesota ranks No. 1 in new business startups per capita,” says Rich Barkley, chair of the Minneapolis chapter. “We’re 2 percent of the nation size-wise, but there is such a support group through the SBA and organizations like SCORE that it’s a live environment for small business startups.”
Although SCORE assists small businesses in every stage of planning and growing, 80 percent of their clients are startup businesses looking to get off the ground. In 2009 and 2010, Jason Schoneman, owner of now thriving Steel Toe Brewing in St. Louis Park, met with volunteers from SCORE, who helped him bring his idea of opening a local brewery to fruition. (For more on Steel Toe Brewing and their work with SCORE, see the March issue of St. Louis Park Magazine).
“Whether you are a startup or an established business, you are going to run though different crossroads,” says SCORE volunteer Malinda Carter. “I feel that SCORE helps business owners learn about things before it costs them money.”
Carter works on the marketing committee for SCORE and also runs workshops, most recently on social media and email marketing—classes that have increased in the digital age.
With the uptick in online activity, SCORE offers more online classes for people who can’t come to their offices; however, mentors still prefer face-to-face meetings when possible.
“We develop a relationship with the client, starting with getting to know each other,” Barkley says. “Then doing a business plan, and by the third meeting hopefully you’re at a place to consider starting your business.”
Dan Shidla has been volunteering with SCORE for about four years, after retiring from a career in the financial sector. He says the greatest value the organization brings is a diverse set of mentors that can help business owners through a variety of issues or serve as a sounding board for ideas.
The one thing SCORE volunteers stress is that while all their counseling is free (the only thing that costs money is workshops) they are simply there for guidance or advice. They will not give the answers or do the work for you, but they will help point you in the right direction.
“When we see clients, in many cases there’s not a particular issue they have or they may not even know what their specific issues are,” Shidla says. “We will help them evaluate the problems. If they need an updated business plan, we will critique the plan. We don’t do the plan for them, but we will give ideas as it comes together.”
Jason Alvey, owner of Four Firkins in St. Louis Park, says it’s hard for him to condense what SCORE did for him in just a few sentences. “They were able to give me solid, down to earth advice. Realistic advice. They weren’t afraid to tell me the reality and explain the very real risks,” Alvey says.
“SCORE is a great little secret,” says Carter. “It just needs to be seen and acknowledged by business owners because there are so many aspects that a business owner would need.”
Alvey agrees. “Looking back, I can see how far I’ve come as a business owner,” he says. “When you start out, you tend to be a little wide eyed and naïve. Over the years, with the help of SCORE and a lot of hard work, I certainly matured as a business owner.”
To learn more about SCORE, including information on upcoming workshops, visit the website at minneapolis. score.org