Brilliant ideas are a plenty in Savannah. Thoughtful innovators, dedicated foodies and first-time entrepreneurs can be found in every crack and crevice in Savannah, ready to charge forth with the next best idea. But if that idea doesn’t have a business plan? It’s a no go.
Of course, the story doesn’t end there, thanks to The Savannah Entrepreneurial Center. A City of Savannah entity, the Savannah Entrepreneurial Center’s mission is to increase local business creation and to support the economic empowerment of Savannah residents by offering comprehensive business training and development services. The center is a huge asset in the community and at The Creative Coast, we recommend hopeful entrepreneurs and business owners to to take one of their courses, specifically the business plan 101.
We got to sit down and talk with the dream team of the center: SEC Administrator, MarRonde Lumpkin-Lotson and micro-business instructors Carl Biathrow and DeAnni Gibbs about the work they do day in and day out for the Savannah community.
The Creative Coast : Talk to us about The Entrepreneurial Center, both with the general mission and also what each of you do individually.
MarRonde Lumpkin-Lotson: The overall mission of the organization is basically is at its core, an educational center for inspiring entrepreneurs and existing entrepreneurs. It serves as a support resource for the business community in various capacities and that is where we find our specialization. An example of that is The NWBE program is a business program that serves to increase utilization for the minority owned business community giving them improved access to city procurements.
Carl Biathrow: I’m a business instructor here at the entrepreneurial center. I teach a series of courses to take the new and aspiring entrepreneur through the stages of startup, operating a business, how to price a product, understanding the fundamentals of accounting, business plan writing, taxes and several other aspects of owning and operating a business.
We had one long course taught in the evenings on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. It runs for 24 sessions over 12 weeks and it covers all subject matter. We are usually very well attended. In the course we started this past Tuesday we had 49 people in attendance. That’s fairly typical. We run it three times a year, January, April and August are our start times on that.
We also do daytime classes. A business management series where we take segments or a section that is a business interest such as accounting or business plan writing or taxes. Classes are spread across the calendar every month in sort of a sequence so that people can drop in and take refresher courses or introduction to various subjects that they’re interested in.
DeAnni Gibbs: I’m Ms. Gibbs and I’m the other micro business instructor here at the entrepreneurial center. So I am your marketing and branding person. Anything that’s digital with your business, I’m the person who you want to see as far as setting up your website, using social media to market your business, to brand yourself. Those classes are available on our schedules so anyone is likely to attend, just based on registration.
We get all kinds of people who come in and just want to know what they need to do to get on the internet to market themselves and to put their business out there. Again, those courses can be anything from a marketing course to website design to social media, digital marketing, so all aspects of the internet for the use of business.
CB: Ms. Gibbs also teaches courses on how to use Excel as a business tool which we believe is a very important business tool. She does courses on drop shipping and eCommerce and whatever else. Microsoft office as a tool for being a more efficient, product business. All the courses that we give here are free. We do expect people to register so we have some idea who’s coming and we think it’s a pretty strong program. We have a lot of really good attendants. A very broad range of prospective entrepreneurs come in here.
CC: I would love to hear y’all talk about some of either your more well known success stories or some of your favorite success stories.
CB: Sure. Perhaps you’ve heard of Big Bon Pizza. That was a great success story. Last year, we spent the principals of Big Bon Pizza, Kate and her sister and her daughter, attended our long session classes. They also came in for one on one consultation as they began to develop their business plan. We helped them with their financial projections and putting together a plan that they could take to the bank to secure some funds that they borrowed. They also did a kick started campaign and raised money with that. They did everything right and they did it well and they’ve been a tremendous success.
We also helped to start the Escape Room which is a new business in Savannah. It’s one of those places you go and you get locked in a room for an hour and a half and you help solve puzzles by finding clues and what not and then you get out. They kicked off this year. They did an excellent job.
In total, we started or helped to start or approved 51 different businesses last year, which is a fairly extraordinary number for business development agencies such as ours. Some of those businesses are simple service businesses. There are a number of people that have gone into the lawn service business. We have masonry contractors, renovations contractors and home service providers for elder care and that sort of thing. So we cover a pretty broad range. We also have a lot of literature that we’ve put together over the years that addresses specific businesses to kind of guide people through all the regulations and the specifics of that business.
MLL: Any particular business that credits a portion of their start or their start in total to the resources and skills and talent and all that contains in this building to lending them, in any part, to start successfully makes me extremely happy. This is the reason why we do this. We would really like to see more of the Savannah business community or would be entrepreneurs come through our doors. Even if you think you don’t necessarily need the services here, but until you walk in the door and get a full appreciation of the offerings, I think most of the entrepreneurial community would be pleasantly surprised. They’ll take a nugget that they either hadn’t thought of before. They may have consciously known about it or known about a topic or subject but to have it brought to the top of your awareness is something that we can reintroduce them to.
That’s predominantly what the business management is geared to do for the sophomore business community.
DG: We’ve had some success with those creating their websites. It’s a lot of hard work and it does take time. They walk in with the idea I want to create a website but a lot of times they aren’t ready. I just encourage them to keep up the hard work and to be diligent and complete in it. That’s where the problem comes in. They think they know what they want to do, but getting it all together is a big step. They just have to diligent in following through with the process. They’ll get it done.
CC: Cool. So last question. For y’all what do you think are the most important things to communicate to people wanting to start a business in Savannah, whether they are from here or planning to move here. What advice would you give? What practical steps would you tell them to take?
CB: I would say one of the things you have to do if you’re coming or looking to Savannah to start a business is to analyze the market very carefully.
CB: While Savannah is a fairly large and thriving city, it is really a small town at all. There are certain businesses that need a much larger population to survive. We are very often presented with somebody’s business concept and as we talk about it they begin to realize that if you look at the population and you sort of drill down to what percentage of the local population is actually going to patronize your business, you haven’t got enough people. While it may be a terrific idea that would fly in Atlanta or Philadelphia, it might just do as well here. You just you need to do your market research very carefully.
People also need to be willing to pay for what they are getting. We do provide one on one consultation for people and we have a lot of people come in and they just want to sit down and talk about a business concept to get it clear in their own mind and to get some feedback. I would say 99% of the cases where we’ve talked with people, they go away with a much better understanding of what it is they should do or want to do or need to do and the sequence to do it. Sometimes they’ll come back and attend classes. Sometimes they’ll come in for further interviews which is fine. Those interviews are all free so we’ll spend an hour, hour and a half in a consultation time with anybody who needs it. Just make an appointment. Both Gianni and I will do that happily. I think last year I talked with 191 different people in one on one interviews. Some of those came back as students later one when they saw a course related to what they do.
We had over 2,000 students go through here.
MLL: Numbers wise we have a lot of people who come in, seek our help and take advantage of what’s available to them. Maybe 10%, I was just looking at the numbers of my class that started the other day. 10% of my class is from outside of Savannah. As far away as Newington and Hinesville and they come in for a class. I’ve had people come down from Hardyville, South Carolina. Last year I had one lady who commuted all the way from Macon to take my class.
MLL: We don’t turn anybody away. We welcome everybody. We do mention that all of our classes are what?
MLL: Free. I want to brag on the NWBE program. They will travel for that programs training as well too. Last year we had opportunity to partner with United States Department of Transportation and provide a bonding education course that the facilitators were in from Atlanta and they came down for the eight session series. We had a gentleman who also came in from Atlanta to take the class. It’s offered here once every year. So we have quite a few that will travel to get the knowledge and experiences that are here in this community.
Another great opportunity with the minority of women owned business enterprise program, is the opportunity to become certified. We do certify minority women owned businesses. Our certification is geared towards ownership and control so when we certify a business, we’re not certifying at all the quality of their work. That’s beyond our scope and depth. But what we’re doing is looking at who is truly is owning, owns the company and is controlling its direction.
When our elected officials, our mayor and council, want to be assured that they are doing business with the MBE, Minority Business, or WBE, which is a Woman Owned Business. We can stand before them and say that they’ve gone through our process. Say, “Yes indeed. This business is indeed minority owned or woman owned.” That program allows, by that vehicle of certification, allows us to do that.
To learn more about the Savannah Entrepreneurial Center, visit them at their website.