Springfield's award-winning Small Business Development Center provides support to local businesses

As growth and development continue bustling through downtown Springfield and beyond, the Small Business Development Center of Springfield (SBDC) stands ready to continue supporting the forward momentum.

The SBDC located in Springfield serves both Clark and Champaign counties. Established in 1984, it’s one of the oldest centers of its kind in Ohio.

“We are business coaches who help aspiring entrepreneurs start the business they’ve been dreaming about,” SBDC’s Executive Director Rob Alexander says. “And, we also help existing business owners grow their businesses. And it’s all free.”

Located at 100 S. Limestone St., Suite 411, the SBDC currently serves more than 300 clients.

“We try to be their coach for life. This isn’t getting you from point A to point B, and now we’re done with you,” Alexander says. “We believe every business owner needs a business coach in their circle in the same way every business needs an attorney that they trust and a banker and so on. It makes you sharp and assures that you stay on the right track.”

Building those ongoing relationships with small business owners started about four years ago, and it’s something Alexander takes pride in. Rather than people stopping in once for help, they feel confident in returning for advice, business templates, suggestions, and more.

“We now try to make sure there’s always a next step and always a reason to come back in and work on their business with us on their side,” Alexander says.

And the hard work Alexander and the SBDC have put in to really reach and support local business owners hasn’t gone unnoticed.

Recently, Springfield’s SBDC received two significant awards. The first is the 2019 SBDC of the Year for the Great Lakes Region, which means Springfield’s SBDC is the No. 1 of its kind out of 101 centers across six states.

The award ranks the local SBDC in the top 10 out of about 1,000 centers across the U.S. It was chosen by the federal Small Business Administration and was selected from a pool of centers nominated by their districts.

“It’s just incredible to think about,” Alexander says. “I think it’s something Springfield can be proud of that they have an SBDC that’s in the top 1 percent in the country.”

The second award was presented to Alexander himself. He was awarded with the State Star after being chosen for the honor by a group of his SBDC peers from all 23 centers throughout Ohio.

Springfield’s SBDC is unique in a few ways. The center is its own entity rather than being guided by and housed within another entity, such as a university, Alexander says. Another unique trait is that the local SBDC is able to give loans like a lending institution would – some banks send entrepreneurs to the SBDC to seek this assistance.

“Needing financials to start a business is one of the biggest roadblocks that people have,” Alexander says. “The best part of our loans is they fill a gap. We’re meant to take on more risk than a bank often would be comfortable or willing to take on.

“For someone who can’t quite get the financing they need from a bank or family members or their own personal savings, sometimes we can make it work because our mission is to help businesses grow and start rather than making money for shareholders.”

SBDC is funded by government grants at the local, state and federal level, but Alexander emphasizes the center is not a government entity.

“If we want to serve entrepreneurs well, we have to be entrepreneurial,” he says. “When you’re part of a government agency, sometimes you can get caught up in rules and forms. We like that we’re small and nimble and very innovative, and I think that’s one of the things that makes a little bit different from most centers.”

Entrepreneurs interested in talking with the SBDC should call or email the office to set up an initial consultation. Alexander says many of the center’s clients come from word of mouth, where one entrepreneur came in, realized how helpful the services are and then recommends it to their friends.

When Ryan Inman first reached out to SBDC, he was struggling to find fulltime success with his business.

“At first, it was just having the support, and then they gave me homework,” says Inman, the owner and president of Ambient Productions, located in Springfield. “People don’t want to do the homework, but I really saw the value behind it.

“They would give me weekly assignments, and as time went on I was starting to make progress and my business was growing.”

Now, Inman’s company is successful and had grown and branched out enough before the COVID-19 pandemic that he’s been able to keep his momentum, even through this uncertain year.

“As a small business owner, it can be easy to be overwhelmed with all the different tasks there are to complete every day. You have to be an accountant one day and a logistics manager the next day,” he says. “Having the SBDC was really nice to help make sure each end of the business was sharp. It was a huge part in not only helping me have the skillset to become successful but also having the support alongside me.”

As far as where the SBDC goes from here, Alexander has one major long-term goal for Springfield – to make it the most start-up friendly city in Ohio

“I still wake up excited because I think we have all the ingredients to get there,” he says. “Springfield has half as many businesses as it should for a city of it’s size. That is ultimately what we’re trying to change and that meaning we have to change the business ecosystem. SBDC can’t do that on our own.”

That business ecosystem is something Alexander says is key to small businesses being successful.

“I liken it to a plant needing the right environment to grow. For a business, you need to be in an area with good education sources, you have access to mentors, you have organizations like the Chamber and the SBDC that help you, you hang out with other entrepreneurs, you have accelerator programs – those are the things you need around to you make it more likely your business will succeed,” Alexander says. 

Other, more short-term goals Alexander sees the SBDC working toward include improving training events and connecting with more existing, mature businesses in the community.

“An ongoing misconception is that SBDC is only for startups,” he says. “There’s still a lot of people in the community who think SBDC is only for startups, and that’s just not true.”

The SBDC can help existing businesses refine their practices and focus on continuous improvement, he says.

“The other thing that is a real game changer is that by having a coach forces you to – for a moment – go from working in your business to working on your business. I think business owners think they don’t have the time for this,” he says. “I think, you don’t not have the time for this.”

Alexander is very hopeful for the continued forward momentum of entrepreneurship and small business growth in the area, and he says new, youthful business owners are a part of that.

“I think that I see a lot of enthusiasm from this new generation and that is contagious. I think their excitement and energy is contagious,” he says. “They’re extremely positive and hopeful, and right now I can’t think of two other qualities we need more in Springfield than people who are positive and hopeful.”

Read more articles by Natalie Driscoll.

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