Nonprofit program gives local businesses tools to grow
on November 14, 2010
Four years ago, graphic designer Ellen Kim decided she was tired of sitting rigidly behind a computer for long hours every day. Hoping to change what seemed an unhealthy lifestyle, she quit her job and decided to start something completely new in design. That’s when she came across the idea of opening her own floral design business.
She studied floristry, began research and business planning, and finally turned her backyard garage into a studio where she could customize flower designs for wedding and other events. Kim opened her business in the fall of 2006—just before signs of a recession. “I couldn’t have picked a worse time to start my business,” Kim said.
She didn’t have much business experience to begin with, and what she did know wasn’t enough. “I did put together a business plan, but after a few years, you forget all that stuff,” Kim said. The help she was seeking finally came from Created In Oakland (CiO), a special program to help local small businesses like hers.
CiO kicked off two years ago with ten participants. In 2009, 15 more businesses owners were enrolled, and last month the newest version, CiO3, launched with another 15 businesses.
CiO is sponsored by the City of Oakland as well as by Alliance for Community Development, a nonprofit business assistance organization. “The program focuses on classic strategies of marketing research that lead to very clear definitions of product and promotion campaigns,” said CiO main founder Darlene Crane.
Crane is also the co-founder of Business Value Alliance, an Oakland-based consulting company. As a former marketing and product development teacher, Crane says, she believes business education plays a critical role for owners trying to grow their new enterprises. Just being good at a professional specialty, Crane likes to say, isn’t enough for a person who wants to turn that specialty into a small business.
The program, which runs for nine months per session, is available to Oakland businesses owners whose annual revenues range between $100,000 and $700,000. Every month, all participants meet as a group for a half-day workshop coached by Crane and other consultants she brings in. Participants also receive two-hour individual sessions every month to emphasize their specific businesses.
When Chris Randle and his partner Ky Yu needed help with their new acupuncture clinic, for example, they were given a test to find out their leadership style. Then, based on the test results, they received guidance on hiring and improving their management skills.
“We basically got business school classes for such small amount of money,” said Randle, who, like everyone else in CiO, paid $450 for the entire program. “Every month we always had a chapter, a guidebook to follow. There’s paper trail, so that way we can always look back and find out what we need to do.”
Randle and Yu, who have both studied traditional Chinese medicine in China, have been running a clinic called Oakland Community Acupuncture for more than three years. Yu said they had no problem with the medical part of their business. What they lacked, like Kim, was business experience. They were unfamiliar with all the business regulations. They also had problems targeting the market for their new project. “The one challenge that I found being a business owner is that there’s so much to know,” Yu said.
With the resources given by the CiO advisors, Randle and Yu were able to complete effective research to decide on the market for their new program—incorporating Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) with workplace health service. They plan to provide on-site acupuncture and other TCM treatments, including health assessment for corporations to keep their employees free from minor health problems like coughs and headaches, which according to some studies are major causes for lowering work efficiency.
These ideas were not new to them, Yu said. But CiO taught them how to turn their ideas into a real product. “CiO gave us a lot of tools that we can continue to use for years to come,” Randle said. “We were able to work through all the details in a much finer way than we have done before.”
Minimal understanding of business operation has always been a huge drawback for people running small businesses. Michael D. Ames, director of an online business education organization called Small Business Institute, listed “lack of experience” as the top reason for business failure in his book Small Business Management.
“None of us has a strong business background,” said Mike Paunovich, another CiO participant. “One thing that we lacked was core, fundamental business practices. ” Paunovich is the manager of Localbizblogs.com, a company that helps business owners develop online marketing strategies. Paunovich and his partners build business websites, but he realized that, although they know a lot about web technology, they needed help turning their expertise into a successful business of its own.
Paunovich said he joined the program at a critical time when the company was shifting from development into marketing. “We were considering hiring a consultant to join our company,” Paunovich said. “The program allowed us to step back for a second. We would have spent twenty times as much on a consultant, easy.” With the help of CiO, Paunovich and his partners have identified business organizations as their new customers, for whom they will build online directory platforms. Paunovich said that with the marketing and sales materials they developed during the program, the company has already signed two contracts for its new service.
The businesses CiO has enrolled are varied. They have included architectural design, clinical psychology, hair salons, marketing and branding—and Gingerleaf Floral, the design company of Ellen Kim.
“I’ve also learned that as a small business owner I can’t do everything,” said Kim, whose revenue took a dip in 2009 but bounced back this year. As the economy is healing slowly, Kim plans to hire employees to help her so she can focus on what she’s actually passionate about—becoming a premiere wedding floral designer in the Bay Area. “I am not passionate about accounting,” Kim said.
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