Startup support: County provides expertise to entrepreneurs

The life of a startup business owner is anything but dull.

The tense moments last well beyond the initial difficulties of getting the company launched and into the first months or years of taking on customers. A startup business owner may be interviewing job candidates or handling tax issues one moment, and rushing off to take care of customers the next because someone called in sick.

For the past two years, Kristen Cronin, owner of a new Club Pilates franchise in Novi, has been learning this firsthand.

“I’m filling spray bottles and cleaning the studio floor twice a day, and then dealing with staffing issues and marketing issues,” said Cronin, who finally was able to hire an assistant seven months after her business launch in April. “Everything falls directly on my shoulders, which is OK. I signed up for it.”

That’s why having expertise in the entrepreneur’s corner is especially important. Cronin received help from Oakland County’s Advantage Oakland program and One Stop Shop Business Center to launch her business, a Pilates fitness center that’s part of the California-based Club Pilates franchise and the first one in Michigan.

Through workshops and direct consultations with the county’s business counseling team, Cronin received “invaluable” help in launching her business — at little or no cost. A 10-week workshop costs only $140; one-on-one counseling is free. Regular one-session workshops range from free to $40.

The counseling is more than tips on making a business plan. Counselors help with demographic research, using analytics and geographical information systems to identify market opportunities and locations. It was this service that guided Cronin to open in Novi, which turned out to perfectly hit the professional woman demographic Cronin sought.

“I thought that might be a second or third location but not the first. It was outside my mental bubble, but the mapping was clear based on the data,” she said.

Cronin has been able to call on Greg Doyle, supervisor of the Oakland County One Stop Shop Business Center, with questions since the launch, and they plan to work together when it comes time to seek outside financing for the expansion.

“Having him as a business mentor is indispensable,” Cronin said.

Seven months into the new business, the payoff of the work could be seen in the rising client count, now numbered at about 1,000, and accolades such as being named the best Pilates studio in metro Detroit this year by local television news outlet WDIV.

Cronin’s eyes are now set on expansion, with a goal of opening one or two more a year for the next few years. The already would be under way if only she were able to find adequately trained instructors. Staffing has been an issue holding back progress and so Cronin, in a classic example of one of the inevitable adjustments startups have to make, launched a program to train people who want to become instructors — a move that brings in revenue while developing a pool of talent to draw from later.

Meanwhile, Cronin has found the rough-and-tumble life of a startup owner to be worth the effort.

“I always have a smile on my face. Even if it’s my worst day, no one would know it,” she said.

The workshops and counseling cover marketing, website design, finance, strategy, market research, statistics and general business consulting.

“Our goal is to give real substance so people leave and say, ‘I don’t know if could have gotten that loan or done this business without those guys’,” said Doyle, who has seven consultants on his team.

Aaron Stone also received one-on-one help from Oakland County’s One Stop Shop Business Center, which is a partner of the Michigan Small Business & Technology Development Center, when he wanted to finally put his plan of owning his own business into action. He wanted to open a self-serve yogurt sundae shop and happened across a county startup workshop.

“I stumbled across a class they had, a free class they were offering for business startups at the exact time I was starting a business so I just showed up,” Stone said. “From there I kept in contact with them.”

Doyle and Erick Phillips, a consultant at the shop, helped with market and demographic research, finding a good location and thorough business plan editing to attract lenders.

Stone used the business plan to pick up a bank loan with support from the U.S. Small Business Administration.

The business, Easy Like Sundae, opened in July 2012, right in the heart of popular downtown Ferndale, a perfect location for a walk-in business.

Stone came into the business armed with a work history in the bar and restaurant industry, and his family owned a deli in Flint. But Easy Like Sundae was his first attempt at starting a business, and it took some time to get things “down to a science.” Now that he’s gotten past the hiccups of setting up everyday operations, he’s looking to grow the business and knows Oakland’s business counselor lines are open.

One of the 10-week courses offered through Advantage Oakland and tied to the One Stop Shop Business Center is the Venture Plan course for people considering starting their own business. Barry Paxton took this course, having left a corporate career of nearly 20 years in the health care industry to venture out on his own.

Counselors helped him identify which franchise to go with in his target business area, private in-home caregiving. They chose a Right at Home franchise, and it now has 50 employees handling 15 to 30 customers a week. Paxton says the entrepreneurial life has been tough but more rewarding than his corporate past:

“I had a great career, a great job and a great life, but at the end of the day I didn’t have an opportunity to do something special.”

2014 Prosper magazine (Oakland County, Mich.)

(Content shown on this page is all original work of this author. Final published article included work of a co-writer, as well.)