Aspiring entrepreneurs typically underestimate the cost of starting their own business – logo and website design, legal fees, site improvements, equipment and inventory.
But at least one thing is free: the expert advice available from SCORE, a 10,000-strong network of mentors working in partnership with the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Warren Stout retired a decade ago to help his wife through a difficult illness. Once she recovered, Stout went looking for a new purpose and discovered it volunteering with SCORE.
Since then, he has helped about 100 people navigate the nuances of launching a business.
During a recent interview, he discussed the rewards of volunteering, the wrong reason to start a business and risqué greeting cards.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Stout: In the Spokane Valley. I graduated from Central Valley High School.
S-R: Did you have a favorite class?
Stout: History. I also played trumpet in band.
S-R: What was your first real job?
Stout: I started working at a bowling alley when I was 16, picking up trash and cleaning the alleys.
S-R: How did you get that job?
Stout: I bowled a lot, so I knew the owners, and they were always looking for high school kids to help out.
S-R: Do you remember what you earned?
Stout: Seventy cents an hour. And it went pretty quick.
S-R: Did you envision a particular career back then?
Stout: I planned to teach history.
S-R: What college did you attend?
Stout: The University of Washington. I earned degrees in history and accounting.
S-R: Then what?
Stout: By the time I graduated, a big wave of baby boomers had entered the workforce, and teaching jobs dried up. So I looked around for something else and found an accounting job. I started with one of the big international CPA firms – what’s now KPMG – worked for them for a number of years, then joined a small Seattle firm.
S-R: How did your career evolve?
Stout: As opportunities presented themselves, I worked in a number of different industries, primarily as chief financial officer.
S-R: What does it take to be a successful CFO?
Stout: Good accounting skills, good people skills, plus knowledge of finance and management.
S-R: What other jobs have you had?
Stout: I was director of circulation for a national magazine, general manager of a printing company, and ultimately ended up with Belden, which manufactures cable and wire.
S-R: Sounds like you moved around a lot. Why was that?
Stout: I guess because I’m curious. When things are interesting, I pursue them.
S-R: What brought you back to Spokane?
Stout: My wife and I originally retired in Arizona but didn’t like it. Next we moved to Minnesota and didn’t like that. Since I grew up in Spokane and my wife liked the area, we moved here.
S-R: Before you retired, how many hours a week did you work?
Stout: Fifty to 60.
S-R: How many people worked for you?
Stout: As many as 200.
S-R: How big an adjustment was your transition to retirement?
Stout: Initially, most of my energy was focused on helping my wife with doctors, rehab, those kinds of things. Once she recovered, the most difficult thing about retirement was finding a sense of purpose.
S-R: What motivated you to volunteer with SCORE?
Stout: Some of that probably comes from my original desire to teach. Also, my wife and I had owned four small businesses, and I thought sharing the knowledge we’d gained over the years sounded interesting and fun.
S-R: What businesses had you owned?
Stout: Two window-covering businesses – one retail and one we ran out of our home – plus a legal-services business and a website for recruiting teachers. All were ultimately successful, and we sold them.
S-R: What do you like most about mentoring?
Stout: Meeting people with different ideas – folks who lack the experience and knowledge I’d been fortunate enough to gain during 40 years at work. Also, it’s a good opportunity to keep current with what’s going on in the business community.
S-R: What do you like least?
Stout: I wish I interacted more with fellow mentors. Clients are scattered all over, so I often work alone.
S-R: How are volunteers and clients paired?
Stout: When clients request mentoring, they indicate what they need help with, and SCORE tries to match them with an appropriate volunteer. But I get asked all sorts of questions, not just ones dealing with accounting.
S-R: What does it take to be a successful mentor?
Stout: Good listening skills. It’s important to understand what your client needs – maybe things even they don’t perceive.
S-R: Is it fair to say most novice entrepreneurs are good at some things and not others?
Stout: In general, yes. For instance, they may be really good at knitting, so they’re going to open a knitting shop. Or they’re a really good chef, so they’re going to open a restaurant. But they often don’t have the background or education or inclination needed to run a business – the financing, planning and budgeting, plus doing all the legal work.
S-R: What are the right and wrong reasons to start a business?
Stout: The wrong reason is because you think you’re going to have so much fun with a passion of yours. The right reason is because you have the resources, and you’re willing to work extremely hard to realize your vision.
S-R: What’s a good business lesson you learned during your career?
Stout: Plan, plan, plan.
S-R: How eager are clients to develop business plans?
Stout: Most people don’t really want to, because it’s hard work. They have an idea they think is great, and they’re ready to go without thinking through what it’s going to cost, how long it will take, who their customers are – those kinds of details.
S-R: Are there basic, fill-in-the-blank business plans?
Stout: SCORE offers a number of pro forma business plans, and if you search online you can find others for various industries. The problem is they don’t really get to the meat of each individual business and your particular circumstances – your location, resources, etc. So they require a fair amount of customization.
S-R: Are there common misconceptions about starting a business?
Stout: Probably the biggest one is that the legality of forming your own business is much more complicated than it really is. The other misconception is that you can start a business for very little money.
S-R: Is the new federal tax package likely to affect people’s ability to start new businesses?
Stout: I don’t think it will affect it at all.
S-R: When you first meet clients and they give you their elevator pitch describing a business idea, can you intuit which ones are likely to succeed or fail?
Stout: It’s impossible to listen to someone’s ideas and not have some sort of judgment. But lots of crazy ideas become tremendously successful, so I try to remain open-minded and encourage people to pursue their dream in a way that’s right for them.
S-R: Any success stories come to mind?
Stout: One client came up with his own line of funny greeting cards featuring vintage photographs – prim old ladies saying something risqué. Not what you’d expect in a Hallmark store, but Target carried them, and he did very well.
S-R: As you work with passionate clients, are you ever tempted to start another business yourself?
Stout: (laugh) Not at this stage. I’m 68, and starting a business is too much work!
Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at email@example.com.
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