They have ideas, gumption and the belief that their concept is going to work, fulfilling their dream of being a business owner. But first, there’s a lot of work to be done and more to be considered than they may have, well, even considered. A group of consultants with years of experience, resources and important connections, is helping people achieve their dreams. Three local businesses, Fiction Beer Company, Four Friends Kitchen and SmartSpace, have benefited from advice that’s right in their neighborhood and completely free.
Ryan and Christa Kilpatrick, co-owners of Fiction Beer Company on East Colfax, worked with the mentors, available through a partnership between the Denver Metro Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and Johnson & Wales University’s (JWU) College of Management. The couple worked with mentors for several months before opening their book-themed, seven-barrel brewery and tap house last September.
Ryan Kilpatrick met with professionals in business, marketing, finance and law. He hoped the mentors would confirm his numbers were sound, his business plan was done properly and that they’d fill in the blanks if something was missing. “That way I could go to investors and banks and not have them laugh at me!” says Kilpatrick.
The couple credits the mentor program with giving them the confidence to persevere. “On the finance side, I don’t know that we’d be here without them,” says Kilpatrick. “They had a couple of comments on the business plan that helped us focus it better, which was key. And they gave us contacts that led to our loan.”
Three mentors, Tim Stein, Kris Hefley and Jeff Gilbert, work at the JWU satellite location as both faculty and SBDC consultants, bringing expertise in food service and restaurant management, sustainability, marketing, sales management, start-up and business planning, and financial analysis. Additional consultants are available in nearly every other business category through the Golden or downtown offices. Consulting is available long-term, helping people from initial ideas through expanding their businesses to exit strategies. Since its 2008 inception as a satellite SBDC office, JWU has served 827 clients in 2,161 sessions, dedicating more than 3,600 hours of consulting time.
The JWU program is the first in the U.S. to combine business consulting with an academic curriculum. Students benefit by taking what they learn in the classroom and putting it into practice in the real world, meeting with clients and working with the mentors. The clients benefit from the students’ perspectives and experiences. And the student body is a pool of well-trained, prospective employees.
Business owners themselves, Stein, Hefley and Gilbert offer the education piece to clients, explaining what needs to be done, offering resources. But then the client has to do the actual work. Gilbert describes the typical client as having been in the work world 15–25 years and with a new business idea. “They aren’t going to go back to college for that. They need somewhere else to learn the resources. They don’t know how to negotiate a lease, how to hire employees, how to negotiate cost controls,” says Gilbert. As Kilpatrick experienced, “You don’t know what you don’t know.”
With backgrounds primarily unrelated to running a restaurant, the two couples who opened Stapleton’s Four Friends Kitchen in March, received wide-ranging help from kitchen equipment resources to fine-tuning job postings to verifying that cost forecasts were in line with industry standards. “They pushed us to dig more deeply into some of the research and analysis early on, to better understand our market and draft a strong business plan,” says co-owner Tim Thornton. The mentors also referred the team to a financing expert. “She looked at our business plan with a fine-toothed comb, saying ‘If I was the bank, here are things I would look at,’” says Genefer Thornton.
Travis Bischoff, co-owner of Stapleton’s SmartSpace, providing virtual, remote office, work and meeting space in Stapleton, also sought help with his business plan and financing. “We could have written the business plan without the help of the mentor program but it wouldn’t have been nearly as good,” says Bischoff. He adds, “You can have this idea but if we weren’t able to get a loan for what we wanted to do, it just wasn’t going to happen.
It’s not always about what you know but who you know, so being put in contact with people they know and have had relationships with was very helpful … They’re local, they’re free, they’re great. It’s just a no-brainer.”
Clients don’t always agree with the mentors’ advice, which is okay with them. “Everyone you ask will have an opinion, usually more than one,” says Stein. “I give clients the pros and cons of the various options. If they ask me which one I’d do, I tell them, based on what I know about them and their situation.”
“A lot (of clients) want confirmation that they are doing the right thing,” says Gilbert. “We are here to challenge them on their thought process, to keep them motivated and excited. We want them to have an opportunity to be successful and not damage their entrepreneurial spirit but also to not misguide them in giving them false hope.”
Visit www.denversbdc.org for more information.