Ryan Francis, the owner of Bath and Bliss, reached out to SCORE's retired business executives last winter but he wasn't sure what the organization's mentors could teach him after a decade in business making organic skin-care products.
Over the past 10 months, however, SCORE mentor Steve Martin has helped Francis boost online sales and revamp the company's line of merchandise, encouraging him to eliminate scents that weren't selling and to add products in the most popular scents. Online sales are up 127 percent from March to September, Francis said.
"I feel like I've taken a four-year MBA program for what they've taught me," he said. "It's hard to describe the amount of help they've been to me."
Bath and Bliss is one of the local success stories for SCORE, an organization affiliated with the U.S. Small Business Administration that offers workshops and personal mentoring from retired business executives aimed at small-business owners and would-be entrepreneurs.
The SCORE volunteers give clients advice rooted in their years of experience, in an attempt to help them avoid mistakes and to understand what it takes to start and operate a small business.
"We want to see people successful in the business world. We want to give something back," said Frank Uhlman, chairman of SCORE's Buffalo Niagara chapter, before joking about his volunteer work, "Do I do this or do I play golf five days a week?"
As part of its range of offerings, the area SCORE chapter now is launching a new, five-day workshop that expands on its standard one-day sessions and drills deeper into the issues facing business owners.
Officials from SCORE and the SBA say the services provided by the volunteer organization are critical because small businesses serve as the backbone of the economy.
Small businesses generated 46 percent of this country's private, nonfarm gross domestic product in 2008, the most recent year for which data are available, according to SBA research published earlier this year.
But it's difficult to start, and grow, a small business. The Kauffman Foundation has tracked a cohort of businesses founded in 2004 and determined that only 49 percent of the nearly 5,000 startups still were in operation six years later.
"Unfortunately the failure rates are high," said Uhlman, whose long career in business included time as chairman of the board of American Credit Indemnity, which was owned by Dun & Bradstreet.
SCORE tries to improve the odds that a business will succeed. The nonprofit organization formed in 1964 as the Service Corps Of Retired Executives, though the group no longer spells out its name, and Buffalo's is one of 364 chapters.
The local chapter has 60 volunteer mentors who are former entrepreneurs and executives from a variety of industries, people who are retired now but who want to stay engaged with the business world.
The volunteers are nearly all older men, though Pou Ma, one of a handful of women, said her fellow mentors have welcomed her.
Ma, 32, began as a SCORE client. The native of India, who moved to this area after her husband got a job with HSBC Bank USA, had worked in an information technology position for IBM in China for seven years.
She went to SCORE to get advice on setting up a retail business - Ma has a stand at the West Side Bazaar, selling traditional and culturally significant clothing and other items from India and China - and expanding a website-design company she started informally at freesite4u.yolasite.com.
Ma now volunteers with SCORE, answering questions from clients about their websites and IT needs. She also redesigned the chapter's website and an online scheduling application.
"It's so fulfilling. I'm enjoying the time with SCORE," Ma said.
Using their experience
SCORE mentors offer assistance in workshop and one-on-one settings. The workshops provide a one-day overview of everything a prospective business owner needs to be aware of: legal, marketing, product-development, financial, accounting and other issues.
"It's really very basic. In one day you cover all of the elements of a business," said Ray Chapman, a SCORE volunteer since 2007 who was employed, and self-employed, for companies including Graphic Controls in the areas of marketing, product development and sales.
Under the mentoring program, a client is matched with a mentor who has experience in the client's field.
The mentor and client meet more frequently in the beginning and less often as the months or years go on, with the mentor trying to help the client reach the right decision for her business.
Chapman likes to compare a business owner making a mistake to someone breaking his nose, and the mentor's job is to minimize those mistakes "So you don't get your nose broken 25 times. You only get it broken twice," said Chapman, who also compares starting a business to giving birth to a child.
The mentors try not to shoot down anyone's business dream, but they present a realistic picture of the likelihood for success.
"They'll tell somebody right up if you're dreaming - it's not going to work," said Franklin J. Sciortino, district director of the SBA's Buffalo office. He added, "There's an old expression: There's nothing better than experience. But in SCORE's case, it's somebody else's experience."
Bath and Bliss' Francis went to SCORE last winter because, as a criminal-justice major in college, he didn't have any academic background in business. Francis started his Grand Island-based company, which now has nine employees, 11 years ago.
He said he paid someone thousands of dollars to set up a website for Bath and Bliss, and thought online sales would automatically follow. "Unfortunately, that didn't happen," Francis said.
Martin, his SCORE mentor, had a 25-year career in manufacturing and recently started an online business with his wife.
He talked to Francis about search-engine optimization and building a brand identity online, before moving on to maximizing profits, production capacity and other concerns.
Martin was instrumental in convincing Bath and Bliss to streamline its line of 40 scents to focus on the 15 or so best sellers. The company dropped vanilla orchid and heather hyacinth, for example, and made spiced apple and lilac available seasonally instead of year-round.
Then, with almond oatmeal and other popular scents, the company started packaging its standard soap and sugar scrub with new products such as lip balm and massage oil, boosting the amount of money spent on each order, Francis said.
"They don't want to do the work for you. They want to teach you how to do the work yourself," said Francis, who now hands out SCORE brochures to other business owners he meets.
Not every client who comes in for assistance is able to get a business up and running.
Some prospective entrepreneurs aren't willing, or able, ?to invest enough time in the nascent company, but the ?biggest hurdle is finding the money needed to get the business off the ground, Chapman said.
Uhlman has talked to clients whose future success came as a pleasant surprise. "Some people hit .300 with the weirdest batting stance you'd ever see," he said.
In 2011, the Buffalo SCORE office worked with 700 clients, counting mentoring clients, people who received online counseling and attendees of workshops or the annual Straight Talk conference aimed at urban communities, Uhlman said.
SCORE is supported by the SBA's Buffalo district office, which provides office space for mentoring sessions, clerical services, access to equipment and funding to cover the organization's expenses. The mentoring is free for clients, and the mentors don't get paid for their time.
"As far as I'm concerned, it's one of the few times when you get something in life for free and it's worth it," the SBA's Sciortino said.
SCORE charges a modest fee for the workshops, basically to cover the cost of the beverages and snacks served at the sessions.
In addition to those one-day workshops, SCORE now is offering a workshop, "Simple Steps to Starting Your Business," that stretches over five sessions. The first session is free, while the second, third, fourth and fifth sessions cost $125 in total.
Attendance for those follow-up sessions will be capped at 20 students per session, with one mentor for every two clients, and attendees will be expected to complete homework and actively participate in the sessions, Uhlman said.
"It will also test their business concept, their business model," he said.
The new workshop offers yet another example, SCORE officials say, of the valuable services they provide that can't be replaced by simply searching on Google for "tips for starting a small business."
"The Internet gives you data. It doesn't tell you how to use the data," Chapman said.