Back in 1954 Doris Day had a #1 hit with the song “Secret Love.” Like Doris, I too have a secret love. Unlike Doris, I’m not good at keeping secrets, so I’m going to spill my guts. I am writing this from the trade show floor in Orlando, Florida, at the 29th annual conference of my secret love — a group that every small business owner should be well acquainted with. Sadly, however, it’s likely that most of you aren’t familiar with the Association of Small Business Development Centers (ASBDC) or even your local Small Business Development Center (SBDC), even though there are over 1,000 centers scattered across the U.S. And that’s a shame, because the SBDCs can be a business owner’s best friend.
To fill you in, most SBDCs are hosted by colleges, universities, and state economic development agencies. Their funding comes, in part, from a partnership with the Small Business Administration. The rest of the money comes mostly from matching funds from state governments, which, given the condition of state economies these days, can be very tough, if not impossible, to come by.
With those monies, the SBDCs offer free consulting and low-cost training to the more than one million U.S. business owners who pass through their doors every year. That means you. Need help writing your business plan? The SBDC can help. How about learning how to optimize your Web site? They can assist you with that as well. In fact, SBDCs can help you learn the intricacies of business software, teach you about the latest business trends, and even fill you in on how to use sites such as Twitter or Facebook to grow your business.
I don’t remember how many of these conferences I’ve been too; suffice it to say it’s been more than a few. And over the years I’ve met hundreds, if not thousands, of SBDC counselors. Part of the reason they convene once a year is to hear and exchange new ideas and learn about the new products and services that will help their “constituents” — America’s small business owners. These counselors are dedicated to their cause. They believe that healthy small businesses are a crucial component to a strong U.S. economy and their mission is to help entrepreneurs start, survive, and thrive in a constantly changing and challenging global economy.
Over the years, their budgets have been threatened, momentarily (and capriciously) zeroed out, and then restored, only to go through the same cycle several years later. At the moment their overall budget is about $110 million, which may sound like a lot to you and me, but is really a pittance when you add it all up and realize that’s supposed to support more than 1,000 offices, thousands of employees, and one million aspiring and existing small business owners.
This is not a plea to write your senators and congressional representatives and tell them the SBDCs (and SCORE and the SBA for that matter) need more money, although I certainly wouldn’t discourage you from doing so. (I should also disclose here that the Los Angeles SBDC is one of my clients.) Rather, this is a sort of public love letter to the ASBDC and its small but incredibly hard-working staff, the thousands of SBDC counselors, and most of all to retiring ASBDC President and CEO Don Wilson. Don has led the ASBDC for the past eight years and he is one of the smartest, most dedicated, and passionate people I’ve ever met.
People who worked with Don say that he served the ASBDC network with “vision, strategy, and passion.” Those are the very same traits we small business owners need as we grow our own businesses. Too many people think you can’t be strategic and passionate at the same time, but smart entrepreneurs know that strategy infused with passion is our secret sauce. It’s what makes our businesses stand out, what enables us to push ourselves to the nth degree, and what fuels us to succeed against all odds.
I’ve learned a lot from Don Wilson. He’s as strong an advocate for small business as you’ll ever meet. So, yes, “once I had a secret love.” But, as the song goes, “my secret love’s no secret anymore.” And you, the nation’s entrepreneurs, can only benefit now that the secret of the SBDCs are out.
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