Washtenaw Community College Offers Free Business Planning Support
By Laura Cowan
Laura K. Cowan is a tech editor and journalist whose work has focused on promoting sustainability initiatives for automotive, green tech, and conscious living media outlets.
How To Start A Small Business in Michigan... During Shutdown
So you’re laid off, or already thinking of starting a new company, but now it not the ideal time to apply to an elite startup incubator. What does a company that doesn’t quite qualify as tech or can’t get funding do right now to fill in the mentorship gaps on the road to starting a new business in Southeast Michigan?
Kristin Gapske is the Director of the Washtenaw Community College Entrepreneurship Center, which helps new startup and Main Street small business founders get the help they need to:
- conduct market research
- find business resources
- find mentors in the community
WCC Entrepreneurship Center Services for Starting a Business in Washtenaw County
Here’s how it works: The service is totally free to anyone from the community, and it’s aimed in particular at people wanting to start a business on the east side of Washtenaw County, where many underserved communities struggle with resources for business ownership. To contact the WCC Entrepreneurship Center, you log on to the center’s website and fill out the Startup Business Research Help form. Two business librarians then contact you and can walk you through the market research process, decoding the information they have access to through databases focused on competitive businesses, market size, and other key info for early business planning.
“It used to be a walk-in session,” Gapske explains, but right now the service is operating remotely to help answer such questions as “What is my target market?” “Who is my customer?” and “Who is my competition?”
The Entrepreneurship Center’s manager and coordinator also help through Business Assistance Requests to help match new business owners with other resources, whether it’s connecting tech startups with Ann Arbor SPARK or the SBDC for funding and mentorship, or other research needed to get started in a particular business.
“What’s happening in your industry?” Gapske says the center can help startup founders answer. “What’s the target there for a B2C or a B2B company? We guide them to do market research.” The Entrepreneurship Center also hosts workshops and refers some companies out to Detroit organizations that support their field. “We’re a resource hub,” Gapske says. “We’re trying to make these resources accessible to people, especially in our area on the east side of the county where there aren’t as many resources for minority or female founders or where founders might be new to business planning so they don’t know what resources exist.”
Entrepreneurs in Residence Program
The WCC EC connects founders with everything from information on insurance to marketing as well. “It can get dense, so we like to do one-on-ones,” Gapske explains, and says that the center is hoping to return to in-person meetings in the Fall when the academic year resumes at the college and more entrepreneurs in residence return for mentoring sessions.
“Our Entrepreneurs in Residence Program meets with people when they’re ready for the customer discovery process,” Gapske says. The WCC Entrepreneurship focuses mostly on micro enterprise owners, solopreneurs, and Main Street businesses that can fall between the cracks in high-tech startup ecosystems. This is intentional, both to serve the community of under-represented and under-funded founders, and to fill the gap that a growing tech ecosystem leaves for all the other entrepreneurs who aren’t in the high-tech space but just need a little support launching a new business.
Is WCC seeing a trend in new startups increasing due to the economic downturn as happened during the Great Recession? “It’s too early to tell,” Gapske says. “Since our March 13 shutdown at WCC, we’ve seen two things:
- Business owners who say, ‘I need an emergency grant so I don’t close. Restaurants, Uber drivers, artists have been coming to us with this, and we’re helping them with grants.
- We’re seeing the same old thing: ‘I’ve got an idea. How do I form an LLC and market this?’
“It’s so heartening to see right now,” Gapske says, “and some people are seeing a real need from PPE to food delivery. We’re aiming our programming at what people need right now in the moment. Entrepreneurs of color and female entrepreneurs are always our focus, but more than before we are wanting to help people without internet access, for example, get the resources they need to shift their business online, and we’re helping people plan for intermittent shutdowns.”
To contact WCC’s Entrepreneurship Center, visit their website and fill out a Business Assistance Request Form. The Entrepreneurs in Residence Program kicks back into high gear starting in August.