A VALUABLE RESOURCE FOR BUSINESS OWNERS by Cindy Perman
The best part? It’s free.
When Dana Kearney’s son Jaelen was born, ten years after her twin girls, she had a tough time finding childcare. Her husband was working days, and she was working a night shift as a registered nurse. She decided to switch to weekend shifts only, so she could be home during the week to care for her son while her husband was at work.
A few neighbors had babies around the same time and when they found out she was home, they asked her if she would consider watching their kids, too. So, Kearney started a small babysitting service in her home. Now, that first crew of babies (including Jaelen) is heading off to college and Kearney’s babysitting service, now known as the Village Babies Development Center, cares for nearly 150 kids under the age of 6. It has a staff of more than 50 and a whole curriculum, including a STEM program.
Kearney didn’t know much about being an entrepreneur at first. In fact, when a neighbor found out there was a building available for rent on Valley Street in South Orange and suggested she move the daycare center there to be able to take care of more kids (there was already a waitlist), she initially said no because it seemed too daunting.
“I saw the building, looked at the landlord and said, ‘I can’t do this,’” Kearney says. “I had the aspects of health and safety under my belt, but it was the business portion that was a fear.”
A relative told her about a resource that not a lot of New Jersey residents know about or use: the New Jersey Small Business Development Center. The NJSBDC provides free business advisory services and training on all aspects of developing and running a small business: from planning and marketing to distribution, funding, employees, e-commerce, cybersecurity and more. Some of the topics are covered in webinars that you can watch live or on replay via the website; the center will also pair you with a consultant who can help with a specific issue.
“Our technical assistance includes mentoring, consulting, any advisory service for a business – at no cost to the business,” says Maplewood resident Tendai D. Ndoro, regional director of the NJSBDC at Rutgers Newark, which is jointly funded by the U.S. Small Business Administration, the NJ Business Action Center and Rutgers University. “Because we are primarily federally funded, it is your tax dollars at work,” Ndoro says.
The NJSBDC at Rutgers Newark, which serves Essex County businesses, is one of 11 regional small business development centers in New Jersey, each affiliated with a college or university.
The centers serve both established businesses and start-ups. Ndoro says established businesses tend to have specific problems – like e-commerce or getting access to capital – whereas start-ups tend to need more general advice. There is also a library of resources at the Rutgers Newark center, including books on how to start a specific business, be it a restaurant, retail store, wedding consultancy, or a personal concierge service, to name a few.
“I reached out and registered with them and started taking courses to really understand what it takes to run a business,” Kearney says.
They told her she needed to hire a good lawyer and an accountant. She established a line of credit for the business and the accountant helped her learn how to manage her cash flow. She also hired a bookkeeper but still took courses on bookkeeping, so she knew her own business and didn’t just delegate the task. She also took a six-week intensive course on starting a business.
And, yes, she ultimately moved Village Babies Development Center into that space on Valley Street, right next to Stop and Shop, where it is thriving today.
“To this day I continue to take courses – everything from business marketing … it’s just been a continuum of courses to help me not to master being an accountant but to have an understanding of what I need to be aware of,” she says, which also includes compliance issues with local, state and federal laws.
When it comes to specific problems, the center will pair a business owner with a consultant who can help them specifically.
For example, they might be doing e-commerce to sell their products but then say, “I’m having challenges in driving traffic to my platform,” Ndoro explains. So, they pair them with an e-commerce expert. Or, they might say, “I need capital.”
“We get a lot of people asking for capital,” Ndoro says. “We look at: How much revenue are you making? … Do you have a relationship with your bank? What is your credit line?” Ndoro explains. “We are making sure that they are prepared to know if they are bankable or not,” she says.
Kearney says she has had mentors in accounting, policy making, and credit, among others.
Kearney was awarded the 2020 NJSBDC Success Award to recognize the outstanding growth and success of her business while she was working with the center. That included her leadership when the business, like so many others, was put to the test during the Covid pandemic. She had to close the child-care center for a few months, use her medical knowledge as a nurse to provide a safe environment to re-open, and develop distance-learning kits for any families that didn’t feel comfortable coming back to in-person care right away. The center helped her with everything from digital marketing to supply chain and intellectual property issues for the kits.
That’s a long way from running a small babysitting service out of her home!
Chavise Albert is another local entrepreneur who turned to the NJSBDC when starting her business. Albert runs Cultural Expressions, an e-commerce business that sells merchandise like mugs, T-shirts and journals that celebrate and inspire Black women. She got help from a friend with the designs but used the NJSBDC for assistance registering her business, learning how to collect taxes and other start-up issues.
As Albert’s business grew – sales have doubled since she launched in 2019 – she’s been taking advantage of consulting and other offerings from the center, including help with establishing a line of credit and with marketing.
“There’s a lot more to marketing than I realized. And different levels of marketing. There’s Google ad space (web browsing kind of marketing), social media marketing, Facebook/Instagram/Meta-type marketing, then there’s those email campaigns … to help find your target audience,” Albert says. “You realize there’s a lot more than just having a website.”
“A lot of people get into business because they have the vision, but they don’t know what to do with it or how to manifest that,” Albert says, “The center is really good at helping you to strategically map out a plan for success.”
There are more than 75,000 businesses in Essex County, according to the Census Bureau, but only around 5,600 individuals or small business owners have taken the Rutgers Newark center’s training seminars in the past few years and only 1,500 have signed up for one-on-one consulting with the center’s experts.
Brenda Hopper, a former state director of the NJSBDC, is a fan of the organization, as you might expect, but she is also now a client, using it to help her with the CBD and cannabis business, CannaBoy TreeHouse in Union and a second location planned for South Orange, that she launched with her son. She and her granddaughter, who is now part of the family business, have taken classes on everything from how to market your business using social media to how to get financing and customer-service workshops.
“It is such a jewel in terms of resources,” Hopper says. “If you have an idea – make an appointment. You can talk to one of the consultants to just look at this idea from inception to opening a business,” she says.
“And it’s not just for start-ups – it’s also for seasoned businesses,” Hopper says. “Maybe you took a financial hit from the pandemic and need help getting back on your feet. Or maybe you’re looking to retire and sell the business,” she says.
“I can’t say enough – please use this resource,” Hopper says. “Your taxes are paying for it!”
To access consulting at the center, go to rnsbdc.com and click “request counseling.”
Cindy Perman is a journalist, formerly with CNBC and WSJ, who lives in Maplewood and hopes to one day have the courage to start her own business.