PhillyInc: Wharton Small Business Development Center's advice? Be clever

Posted: February 14, 2011

In the eight years that Therese Flaherty has been running the Wharton Small Business Development Center, she's seen boom and bust.

The center's client base has remained pretty consistent at about 600 businesses annually, but their questions and challenges have changed since the brutal recession.

Money, of course, is on the minds of nearly every businessperson, Flaherty said. When they hear that the SBDC has no money to lend to them, that ends the conversation for some of them.

That's because in the go-go days of the previous decade, it was quite common for nearly any "bankable" business to receive three or four loan offers from area banks in the space of an afternoon, she said.

Now, fewer small businesses are bankable, and it takes longer to get a loan approval for those that are.

Clients are getting loan offers, she said. But where once the offers were very similar, now they often contain very different terms and rates.

Small-business loans are simply riskier for any bank to make, Flaherty said. Many business owners have seen their credit scores get cut. Sales are not increasing for many small businesses, and their balance sheets aren't as strong as they were three years ago.

So Flaherty and her team encourage entrepreneurs to do what comes naturally for many of them: Be clever. "Can you get credit from suppliers or customers? Can you buy the used piece of equipment instead of the shiny new one?" she said.

During the current lean times, she said she had seen a lot more bootstrapping going on. And some businesses are growing just fine, especially if they have products that can cut costs for their customers. Cost-cutting never goes out of style, it seems.

Many entrepreneurs who find their way to the SBDC say they're committed to pushing their business to a higher level. Perhaps dazzled by the Wharton name, they want Flaherty and her staff to tell them how to do it.

"We can't," she said. "What we can do is help you ask the right questions and act as a sounding board so you will feel more confident in your decisions."

If that doesn't sound valuable, consider one thing that hasn't changed through good times and bad: It's lonely being an entrepreneur. With so much creativity, stubbornness, and commitment going into starting a business from scratch, it's quite easy to get off track.

Flaherty said SBDCs apply the due-diligence tools taught at business schools to the questions entrepreneurs have about marketing, strategy, or other issues. In the end, it's up to the businessperson to make the decision on the right path to take, she said.

"Every small-business owner has a vision," Flaherty said. "But it's never the case that the vision you start out with is the way things turn out."

To be sure, getting advice from SBDCs isn't appropriate for every small business. If an owner needs to make a big decision fast, he or she should probably seek out a paid professional consultant, Flaherty said. "It takes longer with us."

PhillyInc: Small Business Centered

The Small Business Administration runs the Small Business Development Center program, which taps expertise from the private sector and academic community to provide counseling and training to business owners.

Much of the assistance is low-cost and some of it comes at no cost to business owners without deep pockets. The Wharton SBDC at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania has a "frequently asked questions" page on its website at that offers a reality check for entrepreneurial dreamers.

For example, if you're unemployed, why not just start a business? The Wharton SBDC answer cautions that starting a business "involves much more than creating a job for yourself" and lists all that goes into taking such a leap.

The Wharton SBDC offers weekly telephone conference calls about how the program might help a business and two-part programs monthly on the first steps in starting a business. For more information, call 215-898-4861.

Besides Wharton, there are 17 other SBDCs across Pennsylvania. Two others are also housed at area universities:

Temple University SBDC in Philadelphia. Learn more at its website at or by calling 215-204-7282.

Widener SBDC at Widener University in Chester. For more information, go to or call 610-619-8490.

In Delaware, the Newark Small Business Technology Development Center is located at the University of Delaware. For more information, go to or call 302-831-0770.

In South Jersey, the Rutgers-Camden SBDC is in Camden. For more information, go to or call 856-225-6221.

Contact Mike Armstrong at 215-854-2980 or See his blog at

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