Starting and operating a small business can be a daunting proposition, but it’s an essential part of the economy that employs the majority of Americans.

As part of National Small Business Week, the Pioneer Library System hosted a seminar titled “Starting a Small Business” Thursday in Norman. The goal was to encourage those interested in starting a new business, inform them of available resources and make the process less intimidating.

A crowd of 25 people, a majority of whom were women, attended the three-hour session. The library’s Laura Callaham and City of Norman’s Sara Kaplan led the seminar. Representatives from Rural Enterprises Inc. (REI), the Federal Government’s Small Business Administration (SBA) and Service Center of Retired Executives (SCORE) addressed the group. There was also a panel of 10 experts from various organizations in the community who shared their knowledge about mostly free resources.

The attendees included some already in business such as Michael McDonald, CEO of 405 Micro Greens. McDonald grows wheatgrass, radishes and spicy salad mix and sells them at the Norman Farm Market. Others were in the stages of exploring which of their business ideas might be profitable or fun. After this notion was expressed by one would-be businesswoman, Cameron Brewer, of BancFirst, spoke to it with memorable words later in the session.

“You can make any business as fun as you want as long as you’re making money,” she said.

Callaham began the seminar explaining the various services available to small business folks from the Pioneer Library System and that they’ve already been paid for by taxes. Indeed, the seminar itself was in every aspect at the level of quality seen in multinational corporations.

Jennifer Edwards, of REI, revealed eye-opening statistics about the dynamism of women in small business. From 2007 to 2018, women’s participation has surged by 58%. Women presently own and operate 40% of all small businesses. REI presents training workshops around the state in marketing, social media, human resource issues and taxes. Throughout the seminar, attendees asked pertinent questions and made informed remarks. One suggested that a website would be helpful where women could partner with and learn from each other and avoid duplication of effort.

The SBA’s Cindi Carter guided the group through some of the federal government’s intricacies. These involved understanding the main functions of Lender Relations, Economic Development and Business Development. SBA-backed loans make many small businesses possible. But not in the cannabis industry. Bud tenders not only are a disqualified from SBA-backed loans, they can’t get free counseling like other businesses either. It was noted in the SBA’s 8(a) Business Development Program that applicants must “Have Good Character.” An attendee asked if that meant having no criminal convictions. Carter confirmed that prior convictions were taken into account. It was also noted that the SBA gives preference for this program to those in “Historically Underutilized Business Zones.” Carter said that most of Oklahoma falls into this category because of past and current “Indian Territory” status.

Jay Holmes, of SCORE, got down to brass tacks. Frequently he spoke to the group like a fond but firm Dutch uncle. Holmes asked how many present have a business plan. No one raised their hand.

“It’s important to have one so you can explain viability and when you’ll produce a profit,” he said. “There’s a difference between a profitable business and a hobby. You need to write a business plan; bankers, investors and partners will need to see them.”

Holmes detailed the necessary elements of a business plan. Then he got personal about the do-re-mi.

“If you’re not willing to invest your own money, how can you ask an investor to,” Holmes asked. “You have to have some skin in the game.”

Holmes advised that 95% of small business people form a Limited Liability Corporation (LLC).

“If something goes wrong with the company they can’t take your house,” he said.

He also emphasized that business goals have to be realistic.

“You can’t tell a banker that you’re going to sell one of your product to everyone in the free world,” he said.

Holmes job is mentoring novice business people. He’s been doing it since 1964. Some of his advice was inarguably simple.

“What is marketing,” he asked. “Everything you do and say. How you act, look and respond to and treat people. What problem is your business solving and how are you solving it.”

Kaplan spoke about her own family business experiences before joining the City of Norman as retail marketing coordinator. She reviewed some of the city’s resources.

“Once you open your business, we want to see you succeed,” she said.

Kaplan introduced the panel of experts who spoke to the group and answered their questions. They were James Arati, OSU Extension-SBDC, Gina Bertoletti, Moore-Norman Technology Center, Maureen Hammond, NEDC/ Start Up 405, Scott Martin, Norman Chamber of Commerce, Sue Ringus, Ronnie K. Irani Center for the Creation of Economic Wealth and Tom Wavering, Tom Love Innovation Hub. Also included were all the aforementioned presenters.

It was notable that none of these experts had to be there. They were volunteering their time and knowledge. Questions were asked and each described the various programs, facilities and services, much with no cost involved, their organizations provide.

“We’re fully staffed at Innovation Hub and it’s all free except for materials,” Wavering said. “Alejandro Vaca at Stash uses our equipment to make his leather handbags and wallets.”

Martin spoke to the networking opportunities available to chamber members. He said it’s possible to attend as a guest before deciding to join, which involves a fee.

Several answered the question about what common personal traits they’ve seen among successful small business people.

“They have the background and skills consistent with the businesses they open,” Bertoletti said. “They’re determined, persistent and can work with other people.”

An attendee said that he’s currently in business for himself and came here from out of state.

“Something I’ve noticed about here that’s different from other places is that Oklahomans want to help each other out,” he said.

Mack Burke is an investigative reporter and award-winning feature writer and columnist for The Norman Transcript. An OU alumnus, he has lived in Norman since 2003.