Kristina Oliver: 'Small business is big business'
The following is a synopsis of the Putnam County Rotary Club meeting of July 29:
"Small business is king in West Virginia," Kristina Oliver told Putnam Rotarians today."Ninety-seven percent of our businesses in the state -- companies which have 500 or fewer employees -- are small businesses," she said.
Oliver began her career as a Marshall graduate in art. They told her, to be a true artist, she needed to go to New York and starve.
But she had other ideas. She had the creative mind of an artist, and she wanted to recognize business opportunities and promote community development.
Along the way, she has been a researcher, a consultant, a business coach and a teacher. And, most importantly, combining all those skills, she is an "entrepreneur."
"When I started my first business at age 23, I didn't know what I didn't know," she admitted.
"The signs for Halfway Market were one of my designs," she recalled. "Boyd Meadows started Halfway Market. He came to me to talk about making signs for his new location. He said, 'Come on, I want to show you something.'
"We drove up and down the valley. It was a lot of farmland. And Boyd told me, 'Hang on to your hat, young lady, 'cause this place is going to explode. There's going to be all kinds of small businesses up and down this valley.'
"And he was right! And I know that is what has helped to generate most of the wealth in Putnam County, the fastest growing county in the state.
"When I was in Raleigh, North Carolina, everybody had a coach for everything -- a personal development coach, a business coach. It was a cost of doing business.
"A business coach was like having a CPA, or an attorney. They were part of the management team, the advisory team. West Virginia needed this."
Five years ago, Kristina Oliver returned to her West Virginia roots as state director of the Small Business Development Center.
"Small business is big business in West Virginia," says the entrepreneurial artist-manager. "We believe that fostering entrepreneurial activity and the corresponding job growth are essential to developing communities."
In the last three years, the SBDC has assisted clients in raising nearly $53 million in capital, in creating and retaining more than 3,500 jobs, in starting 635 new businesses. "Our business coaches have served more than 3,100 clients," she said.
The Development Center is housed within the West Virginia Development Office, the economic development agency of the Department of Commerce.
Oliver describes the Center as a hybrid, a private sector office in a public sector world. She tells people point blank "that we don't give them grants or free money.
"Frankly," she says, "if you're looking for free money, you probably shouldn't be starting a business. It takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears to start a business."
The Development Center training is at little cost. Business coaches are assigned at no cost.
What does a business coach do? "They walk the journey with the small business as a trusted advisor to help that business discover what it needs for success.
"A lot of times clients come in and they say, 'I only need two things: money and marketing.'
"After talking for a while, you realize they might not need the money part. You may need to shore up some practices here and there. You may be bleeding here and there. You tend to that.
"And then you say, 'O K. What kind of capital access is right for you?'
"And I tell our coaches. 'You work with them before the loan, during the process, and -- most importantly -- afterwards. So that six months down the road you're not saying that you need more money.'
"A business coach helps to keep business on track and focused for success. You have to develop a relationship.
"A lot of people say that business is business. It's not personal. But when you're in a small business, personal relationships are very important.
"If you are going to be talking with somebody, you want to feel like you can trust them. That takes a relationship. It takes a little bit of time, but this is not a transaction. This is a transformation.
"I always ask my clients to remember five things: So what? Who cares? Why you? What's your exit? And show me the money.
"So what? What is your project or service? Do you really have a market for it? If other people don't care, then you don't have a business.
"Who cares? Who is your customer? Who is going to pay you so you can sell your product or service?
"Why you? Why do they want your business? What is special about your management team so you can deploy projects as a team?
"What's your exit? You always begin with the end in mind. Many people work hard for many, many years, and then they want to sell their company and retire. But at the end of the day -- blood, sweat and tears -- the bank doesn't recognize it. Hard cold facts of money and how much things are worth -- valuable assets. That's what they look at.
"Then, show me the money. Businesses are created to make a profit. If you love what you do, but you're not turning a profit -- you probably have a pretty robust hobby. And hobbies are wonderful, but they don't put food on the table.
"If I had had a business coach, I could have avoided some of the mistakes I made. I would have become successful much more quickly.
"When I accepted this position, that was one of the passions that drove me to change out the way the SBDC does business.
"I know that we need business coaches, people who have been in our shoes, people who can connect with the entities that are already in place -- the SBA, universities, community colleges, chambers of commerce."
The Putnam County Rotary Club meets at noon on Tuesdays at First State Bank Community Room, 3754 Teays Valley Road. For more information, visit www.putnamrotary.com.
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