Akron SCORE uses volunteer business people to mentor entrepreneurs

Started in 1965, Akron SCORE is a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to providing free and confidential business counseling and workshops for anyone who needs it.

“We’ll counsel pretty much anybody,” says Dan O’Connell, chairman of the nonprofit. “But the statistics show that about half our people are entrepreneurs thinking about starting a business and the other half are people already in business wanting mentoring or help.”

There are no requirements, no restrictions, no hoops to jump through to receive free and confidential counseling or attend workshops. Clients, as they call them, are asked a series of questions SCORE uses to find the best match among the branch’s 64 volunteer mentors, all of whom have varied business backgrounds and experience.

“We’re trying to match people’s skills with what the client wants,” O’Connell says. “That is for mentoring or counseling. But often when they call in they don’t really know what they want. Then we really try to direct them to our basic workshop, which is, ‘How do you start a business.’ Then they’re a little easier to match up with because now they know a little bit more about what they really want.”

In 2016, SCORE held 111 workshops that covered topics such as starting a business, writing a business plan, marketing and social media, and starting a website. The goal is to increase that number in 2017 and hold an even number in each of the counties it serves, which include Summit, Media, Wayne and Portage, to reach more people.

There to help
“You don’t know what you don’t know,” says SCORE Secretary Gary Sutherland. He says counselors try to walk those who come to SCORE through the steps of starting a business — permitting, product costs and pricing, marketing and competitive assessments.

“We lead you all the way through the business plan and the financials and where you’re going to go, and it helps you learn some of the things you may not know,” he says.

Whether they’re starting out or they have a business, it’s very hard for an entrepreneur to have a skillset that cross all the functions of a business, Sutherland says.

“They might be a great salesperson, but they don’t understand finance; they don’t understand human resources and how to hire people, how to screen people and how to manage them; or they may not know exactly how to buy correctly,” he says. “That’s where we come in. We help shore up the weaknesses and develop them into better entrepreneurs and managers.”

Counselors don’t take a canned approach to helping clients. They adjust to what the client needs. Part of SCORE’s mandatory, ongoing counselor training is teaching them to stop and listen to the client first. The idea is to offer advice in a nonthreatening way so as not to discourage someone, but also to help him or her not waste his or her time, money and effort on something that isn’t going to work.

“We project that if they come to see us and go through some — it’s not defined exactly how much counseling or workshops we do with them — they have a better chance of success. And [the national SCORE office] throw(s) out a number: 25 percent better chance of success,” O’Connell says.

Some SCORE mentors have had careers with big companies, some have owned their own companies, and some still operate a small business. Mentors are men and women, and while the organization was meant to be a place where retired executives could give back to the business community — SCORE meant senior core of retired executives — today there is a push to get younger counselors, some are as young as their mid-30’s.

A lot with a little
Still, SCORE ideally would have mentors who are early retirees that ran a business and made enough money that they don’t have to work and want to give back to the community.

Because most mentors are older, O’Connell says there’s considerable attrition because of death, illness or relocation. Once in, however, he says only a quarter of those who sign up to be mentors don’t stay with it for more than a year.

“People come and go,” O’Connell says. “Keeping people active and maintaining that roster is a constant challenge.”

It’s also a challenge getting volunteers to do administration jobs or take roles that come with greater responsibilities, such as vice chairman or the head of a county.

“It’s difficult to recruit people for the administrative or the executive job,” O’Connell says. “And you want the right person. It’s got to be somebody who can motivate volunteers, which is a little different from ordinary business where you can tell people what to do.”

He says the organization’s annual budget is less than $100,000, which comes from donations and money from the national office. They work out of the Summit County Building rent-free, only employ a full-time and part-time person, and the rest goes to marketing, office supplies and utilities. With those resources, in 2015, Akron SCORE helped start 118 businesses, which created 128 new jobs.