Do you believe that you get what you pay for? Reject that interior nag telling you nothing good comes free. It’s possible to get excellent free advice for your business if you know where to look. And what you can’t get free, you can get fairly inexpensively.
1. Retired executives serve as mentors. A business owner in Florida wanted to bring her son into the family-owned parts-exporting business, but to do so she needed to significantly grow the company. She found the advice she needed from SCORE, which has 13,000 volunteer business counselors in 364 chapters nationwide to help small businesses. These volunteers are businesspeople, now retired, but with tremendous experience to share. The SCORE website gives you the option of
with a local mentor or selecting a mentor by specialty for an email consultation.
SCORE also provides local workshops as well as webinars on business topics (Patent and Trademark Basics; Using the Internet and Social Media to Acquire and Keep Customers; Crowdfunding, an Alternative Source of Funding). Or, SCORE can connect you to another local company for peer-to-peer mentoring.
In the case of the Florida business owner, SCORE sent in a Quickbooks ProAdvisor to show her how to use her accounting system more efficiently, as well as an experienced businessman who felt she was viewing her client base too narrowly and guided her in growing her market.
SCORE is not the only source of mentors. Networking at business events is another way to find an experienced businessperson who would offer advice on specific problems. In an article in Inc., Norm Brodsky suggests, “You can simply ask for occasional counseling along the lines of: ‘Would you mind if I came by now and then to bounce some ideas off you?’” He writes that “a mentor’s role is not to advise you but rather to give you a different way of thinking.”
2. Your problem = a business school project. Business schools need real-world problems to tackle, and why not yours? You can take the details of your quandary to the head of the department, and then hope for the best minds among MBA candidates to take up your difficult challenge as a class project. At Florida A&M University’s School of Business and Industry (SBI), there’s a close affiliation between SBI and the Small Business Development Center, LaTanya White, management professor at the SBI stated in an email.
- Business school faculty members have used local businesses as case studies, and for their part, businesses “have gotten either business analysis, business plan development, market research and marketing plan development services from the School of Business and Industry.” White suggested that businesses looking for help of this sort ask for an introduction from their local Small Business Development Center. “Most of them across the U.S. are affiliated, or at least have some relationship, with the business schools at the colleges and universities in their area.”
3. Pro bono lawyers and other free or cheap legal services. In New York City, microbusinesses can get free legal advice from some of the top law firms in the country through a program called Volunteers of Legal Service, or VOLS. Issues having to do with corporate structure to intellectual property are tackled by lawyers as part of their pro bono commitment. The business owners must be low income, and are usually screened by a community organization, micro-lender or government agency.
In Minnesota a program called LegalCORPS provides free legal assistance to low-income entrepreneurs. The nonprofit functions thanks to 370 business attorneys who volunteer their services. They offer brief advice clinics and full representation. Income screening is done by LegalCORPS itself.
In other cities in the U.S., similar organizations offer pro bono legal services for small businesses.
Another option is Rocket Lawyer On Call, which has some free elements. On Rocket Lawyer’s Website are a large number of legal forms that are widely used in the business world—all free. Each comes with an explanation. Related business forms and help articles are listed (as live links) when you click on a form to download. It’s all well organized.
Rocket Lawyer On Call, which started in 2011, has a nationwide network of independent attorneys who consult with businesses that need legal help. The initial call to the lawyer and his or her review of your documents is free. Subscriptions start at $29.99/month and include, depending on level, a certain number of consultations. More consultations might be needed, and in that case, a standard price kicks in: 40 percent off the lawyer’s standard rates or $125 per hour, whichever is greater.
The services used most often are the resources for small business owners seeking to incorporate, maintain corporate records, find business and employment contracts or do real estate transactions.