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Voices of Experience Help New Businesses Score

  • Adam Schwartz

Anyone can start a business in the United States. Starting a successful business is another matter altogether, as Susie Seligman knows.

Ms. Seligman creates functional art. She buys antique chair frames, gives them a new finish, and adds her custom-designed, hand-painted upholstery. "My work primarily for the chairs borders pretty much on the whimsical," she says. She points to a picture of a dog on the fabric, wearing a bow tie. "So this is a whimsical, funny little terrier, what I call yippie dogs."

These pieces are one-of-a-kind. But ever since her undergraduate days, Susie Seligman has dreamed of creating what she calls a real business: mass-producing art chairs so they can be sold in retail furniture stores. Now, after postponing that dream to raise a family, she's ready to start her business.

She's got talent, drive, the support of her husband… and fresh doubts. "Y'know, there's lot of reasons why this chair business might not work," she worries. "Not the right kind of fabric, it should have certain kinds of fabric on it for flame retardant. There's lots of little problems that could come up."

So Ms. Seligman turned to SCORE, a nation-wide organization that offers aspiring entrepreneurs encouragement and advice. James Rusie is one of the 16 volunteer counselors with the Bloomington, Indiana chapter. "About 70 to 80% [of the people] we counsel want to start a new business," he says, adding that many of them have never been in business before and "may not know where to start."

Drawing on his 3 decades of experience as president of a local bank, Mr. Rusie helps them critique their ideas. "We can help them work through their thoughts and develop a business plan to see if what they want to do is a viable idea," he says. Sometimes the counselors realize it's not. Then, Mr. Rusie says, "we help them maybe understand that it's not viable as they go through the process and they don't invest their resources in something that's maybe isn't going to work."

SCORE counselors help clients with every aspect of their business, from advertising to bookkeeping to employee relations. Its services are free. Counselors include lawyers, accountants, businesspeople and corporate executives, both retired and active. Leonard Newman is a retired third-generation retailer in Bloomington. He's convinced that the future of the local economy depends on the success of small businesses. "We have seen a deluge of large businesses leaving the community," he explains, "leaving a lot of holes and a lot of people unemployed."

This morning, Susie Seligman is meeting with Lenny Newman and James Rusie at the Bloomington SCORE office. As she arranges dozens of color snapshots of her art chairs on the conference table, Mr. Newman tells her she's in a good location. "You're right in the middle of the largest chair manufacturing area in the whole world. The largest chair company in the world is Best Chair Company in Ferdinand, Indiana. And this," he says, pointing to her snapshots, "is exactly the type of thing [they like]."

Mr. Newman encourages Ms. Seligman to make the rounds at all the likely chair companies in Indiana. That discussion leads to other topics: establishing a company identity… getting business cards… choosing bookkeeping software. He challenges her to think of herself as a businesswoman, something she admits she's never done.

After about 45 minutes the meeting starts to wrap up. The air seems charged with the feeling of a successful venture about to begin. Lenny Newman tells her, "Full speed ahead," and everyone agrees it will be an exciting adventure.

Two weeks later, Susie Seligman is back at work in her studio. "I loved it when Lenny said go forward," she laughs. "It's time. Full steam ahead. Because oftentimes you can [think about plans] and never really make that leap, that step into action. And I think he was giving me permission and giving me support to take action. To do action steps now."

And she's taking those action steps: planning visits to chair makers around Indiana… finding a web designer to help her create an on-line store… visiting furniture industry trade shows. With the support of SCORE, Susie Seligman is moving full speed ahead, hoping to add another company to the over 20 million small businesses that help keep the U.S. economy growing.