The American economy has always been driven by the entrepreneurial spirit of its citizens — people who take an idea in its most primitive form, then sculpt and fashion it into a viable business. But even the best ideas must be polished and refined before they can even be understood, let alone molded into a business plan.
If you think you have an idea that can become a profitable business, you’ll find more than your fair share of assets within Lake County’s borders. From the Raymond C. Kralovic Center for Entrepreneurship in Willoughby to the Entrepreneurship Center and Small Business Development Center at Lakeland Community College, tomorrow’s business leaders can find all the information and help they need to start a company from the ground up: from education and financing through legal matters and the product patenting process. It doesn’t cost much, and, most of the time, the services are offered for free.
Named for the co-founder of Steris Corp. in Mentor, the Raymond C. Kralovic Center for Entrepreneurship offers access to experienced business professionals who know firsthand the challenges of starting a business.
“We try not to advise, unless we are asked,” says Kip Marlow, president of the board of directors for the organization, which has offices in Willoughby City Hall. “We mentor and push back. We ask someone who comes in here how they want to market their product, whether or not their product is patentable — and sometimes practical questions like whether or not they are going to keep their job while they try to build a company.”
The center also has access to professionals who can provide invaluable help to entrepreneurs.
“I like to say that I have a master’s degree in referrals,” says Marlow, who founded Marlow Surgical Technologies, selling the company in 1997 after 22 years of successful operation. “We have attorneys that we can send people to who will do pro bono work. We have CPAs that can offer advice as well. As long as the project is not too big, an entrepreneur can get often get this initial advice for free.”
Perhaps most important, the center can help direct entrepreneurs to where they might be able to find financing. A couple of places they work with are fairly unique, including the Economic and Community Development Institute in Cleveland, or the Hebrew Free Loan Association, which offers no-interest handshake loans, says Marlow.
“But you have to qualify, and they really put you through the grill as far as qualifying for the loan is concerned,” Marlow adds. “If the company is going to manufacture a product that is patentable, then we will send them to Case Western Reserve University, where there’s a program that can help them find help writing a patent for free as long as they don’t make three times the current poverty level.”
Perhaps best of all, the Raymond C. Kralovic Center for Entrepreneurship works in concert with both the Entrepreneurship Center and the Small Business Development Center at Lakeland Community College.
“We are very familiar with Kip and his program, and we do cross referrals between the two programs,” says Gretchen Skok DiSanto, assistant professor of Business Management and director of Lakeland Entrepreneurship Center. “For example, whenever we run across a client that needs patent expertise, we send them to Kip. But when they need more of a focus on how to develop a market, he might send them to us, because we have a ton of resources that are provided to us through the State of Ohio.”
Skok DiSanto also serves as the assistant director of the Small Business Development Center. While the Entrepreneurship Center is directed toward educating students on how to build a business, the SBDC is more about offering small business resources for small businesses in the community.
“Our Entrepreneurship Center is designed for a student who is interested in building a business,” she says. “[Lakeland Community College] offers a concentration in entrepreneurship that offers an associate degree of applied science. So you would basically get a degree in business management with an entrepreneurship concentration. I teach three [entrepreneurship] classes at the center and, at the end of those three classes, a student has a working business plan.”
The Entrepreneurship Center is becoming increasingly popular with students. Enrollment has increased every year. This November, the Entrepreneurship Center will host an “Entrepreneurship Week,” which will include speakers as well as a business pitch competition, along the line of the popular television show Shark Tank.
“I also help coordinate the Fast Track 50 through the center, an awards program that recognizes the fastest-growing companies in Lake and Geauga counties,” adds Skok DiSanto.
For its part, the SBDC provides one-on-one counseling for the business community.
“That includes everything from startups and pre-ventures to existing small businesses,” says Skok DiSanto. “We work with these organizations on everything from HR challenges and financing to the development of market plans, market research and assistance with writing a business plan.”
In addition, the SBDC at Lakeland provides valuable market research for both existing companies and startups, including services like IBISWorld reports or Hoover’s, a detailed listing of possible competitors. There is even access to services like LexisNexis through Lakeland’s library.
“A second component of what we do is to offer a tremendous amount of free or low-cost training,” she adds. “We have classes both here at Lakeland and at Auburn Career Center. We even have QuickBooks classes, which are very hard to find these days.”
The SBDC and the Entrepreneurship Center also host something called the Lake County Small Business Expo.
“We partner with the three local chambers in Lake County to host a business-to-business trade show that features about 40 different small businesses,” says Skok DiSanto. “We also offer learning workshops throughout the day during the event.”
Presented by the Eastern Lake County Chamber of Commerce, the Mentor Area Chamber of Commerce, the Willoughby Western Lake County Chamber of Commerce, Lakeland Community College, Ohio Small Business Development Centers and a host of other sponsors, the Lake County Small Business Expo offers a day of networking and learning for entrepreneurs.
Naturally, the SBDC is also actively involved in helping small businesses find financing. Last year, the SBDC found $42 million in financing for its clients.
“We also have something called the Small Business Capital Corp., that is a Certified Development Corp.,” says Skok DiSanto. “They do SBA 504 lending. The SBDC and the Small Business Capital Corporation work hand-in-hand to assist small businesses in securing SBA 504 loans, which require 10 percent down, but can then be used for equipment, machinery and real estate.”
So if you’re looking for help in starting a new business in Lake County, there are plenty of educational and research resources at your disposal. The next step is up to you: All you have to do is seek help. It’s right at your fingertips.