Getting down to business with a business consultant

Entrepreneurs get tough-love treatment
Getting down to business with a business consultant
Christine Gruneberg, Michelle Somes-Booher and Julie Wood of the Wisconsin SBDC at UW–Madison

“You’re making the face,” said a client to Michelle Somes-Booher, business consultant and director of the Wisconsin Small Business Development Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. According to Somes-Booher, it’s the tough love face, the one she puts on when she says something that a client doesn’t want to hear.

It’s all in a day’s work, though, when your job is coaching entrepreneurs, guiding them through tough problems and, ideally, transforming their dreams into reality. Sometimes it’s fun and productive, she says. “And sometimes it’s not.”

Somes-Booher knows firsthand the bumps in the road to a successful business.

“I come from three generations of entrepreneurs in my family,” says Somes-Booher, who holds an MBA from Central Michigan University and started and operated a paint-your-own-pottery studio for five years before moving to Madison. “That’s my life. I get that entrepreneurial mindset.”

For the past five years at the Wisconsin SBDC at UW-Madison, Somes-Booher has been consulting, writing curriculum, teaching and now managing the federal Small Business Administration program funded in part through a cooperative agreement with the U.S. SBA, which offers free and low-cost services to qualified businesses anywhere in the state and also offers noncredit courses for business owners and employees. It’s why she can tell you with authority that there’s no typical entrepreneur, no two days are alike and access to capital is a frequent roadblock to success, whether you are a mom-and-pop retail biz or a high-growth, high-tech startup.

“Money is always an issue,” she says. “It’s essential to have some sort of ability to plan … process is a really important thing, especially when you’re driven by your passion.”

Another common denominator, she says, is that a business owner often struggles more than the average worker to maintain a life outside of work. For this issue in particular, her counseling methods are universal.

“I don’t care if you are a tech startup or a lifestyle business, I’m going to approach you as a whole person,” says Somes-Booher, citing a recent example of a male client experiencing major changes in his business while balancing the demands of a new baby. She advised him to consider two different strategies–one if he had the time to implement his business plan, one if he didn’t.

I asked Somes-Booher if any issues entrepreneurs face change over time. She cited two: technology and the economy, whether overall or by industry sector.

Created in 1979, the Wisconsin SBDC at UW-Madison serves small and emerging midsize companies in Columbia, Dane and Sauk counties and is part of a statewide network of 12 centers primarily located on four-year UW System campuses. The SBDCs in Wisconsin (there are nearly 1,000 across the country) are funded and managed in partnership with UW Extension.

In 1989, the Wisconsin SBDC at UW-Madison launched the Wisconsin Business AnswerLine, a no-cost consultation on startup or management questions available to anyone in the state. You can call or email and talk to one of two consultants who have a wealth of experience, or you can request free counseling.

Somes-Booher says entrepreneurs and business owners often find their way to the SBDC through the ever-evolving entrepreneurial ecosystem–chambers of commerce, networking and funding programs and service providers, such as accountants, bankers and attorneys. I’ve seen Somes-Booher in action many times, coaching female-led startups at Doyenne Group retreats, mentoring women and minority CEOs enrolled in the UpStart entrepreneurial program managed by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and networking at business events. Comienzos, a program for Latino-owned businesses, established in 2006, has served more than 850 clients in partnership with the Latino Chamber of Commerce, the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative and the Wisconsin SBDC at UW-Madison.

From hosting a summer Youth Entrepreneur Camp to teaching management skills, Somes-Booher says her team is constantly identifying tools, techniques and trends to support clients.

She has the resources. And the tough love.

In Numbers: Wisconsin SBDC at UW-Madison

Clients served – 361
New businesses started – 85
Number of class participants – 1,391
Raised in capital by clients – $9.6 million