On the second Thursday of each month, Gerald Winkelmann, owner of All-Type Containers Inc., leaves his closed-out merchandise business behind and heads to a four-hour meeting in Creve Coeur near St. Louis.
"On the way over there, I'm thinking, 'I've got 15 things I've got to do today,' " says Winkelmann. "But, before the first break, I've got answers to six of the things I need to deal with."
Winkelmann is not spending his morning with an expensive management consultant. He's sitting around a table with about a dozen fellow small-business owners who belong to the Alternative Board, or TAB as it is known. TAB groups, slowly forming around the country, serve as unpaid, informal advisory boards for small-business owners.
"You've got to be willing to spill your guts or it's no good," Winkelmann said. "You can't tell the group half the story."
Missouri businessman Allen Fishman ended an early retirement about 18 months ago to create TAB. Membership is limited to owners or chief executive officers of non-competing businesses. Each group is organized to bring like-sized businesses together. Members pay between $1,000 and $3,000 a year, based on annual revenues, for the privilege of sharing their experiences and learning from one another's mistakes.
"The key is getting the advice from your peers," said Fishman, who retired to Aspen in 1987 after selling a multimillion-dollar electronics company. "Peer pressure also helps people follow through with the solutions proposed."
If joining a group doesn't suit your style, you can still fix your business without spending a lot of money.
Virtually every business school in the country has programs designed to match eager students with small-business owners. The U.S. Small Business Administration's Small Business Institute program operates in cooperation with universities around the country.
In Los Angeles, for example, business students at Loyola Marymount University are available to research and write a detailed analysis of your business -- at no charge.
This past semester, 43 students spent hundreds of hours delving into the financial statements and business histories of a plumbing business, a beauty salon, print shop, card store, computer store and office products store, among others. The team of students also analyzes your competition and makes suggestions to improve your operations.
"Most of the businesses we deal with have between one and five employees," said Dr. George Hess, a Loyola College of Business professor who coordinates the program. Hess suggests business owners contact the SBA office nearest them for an application form.
UCLA's Entrepreneurial Studies Center runs a Small Business Consulting Service, which enables students to work with business owners for pay or academic credit. Another program, the Venture Fellows internship, places five or six graduate students with venture capital firms or companies that venture capitalists have invested money in.
If you are interested in going back to school, the center also offers management development courses targeted to different industries. For instance, Pacific Bell recently sponsored a course for people in the telecommunications field, according to Karen Feinberg, assistant to the director of the Entrepreneurial Studies Center. The Center can be reached at (213) 825-2985.
At USC, recently graduated business students are offering eight weeks of free assistance as part of their summer honors $H program. Companies in Los Angeles and Orange County that have a substantive summer project for an intern can contact William Crookston, Ph.D., for details at (213) 740-0641. USC also has a variety of academic programs designed for busy business owners.
If student help doesn't appeal to you, how about advice and counsel from a veteran business person?
The SBA's SCORE program, which stands for Service Corps of Retired Executives, has hundreds of volunteers working out of SBA offices around the United States.
SCORE advice is always free and many SCORE counselors are willing to form a long-term relationship with the owners they help. SCORE also sponsors a myriad of low-cost classes and seminars on topics ranging from writing a business plan to running a
home-based business. Contact your local SBA district office.
If you prefer to stay home and solve your problems, check out the New American Business System, a 350-page, illustrated step-by-step program outlining a practical, small-business management plan.
"Most newcomers ignore the experiences of business people who have already done it, so they marke the samem mistakes," said Charles Chickadel, the San Francisco-based author who created the system.
Purchase alone, the program cost $49.95. For information call (800) 462-2699, Ext. 77.