A decade ago, new businesses in Howard County were failing at alarming rates, although the county was one of the wealthiest areas in the nation and enjoying healthy growth.
It was a chilling contrast for Richard W. Story, chief executive of the county's Economic Development Authority. He realized something was needed to improve the odds, if only slightly, for those braving the savagery of the free-market system.
So he formed the Business Resource Center in Columbia, consolidating the myriad programs and services available to startups. Five years ago, he expanded the operation to include the Neo Tech Incubator, from which entrepreneurs work until they are ready to be in the world on their own.
Since its opening, the center has served about 8,000 small businesses and is on track to assist 1,000 this year. Working with the center does not guarantee success, but Story points out: "Eighty percent of the businesses that start today will fail in five years. We're dealing in that arena. Without our help, the odds for failure are greater."
Okenka Stasyshyn Bren is evidence of how the center can help.
As she accepted a business award recently, she singled out a retired Bell Atlantic executive who volunteered several years ago to help her prepare a business plan, and even today is available for occasional advice.
"I'm a musician," Bren says, "not a businesswoman. I needed to know how to hire the teachers, how to get the students. Very basic things."
More than basics were provided by William Beech, then a volunteer with SCORE, the Service Corps of Retired Executives. And today, the Olenka School of Music boasts two main locations and two satellite offices in Howard County, employs a faculty of 19 and serves about 450 students.
"I desperately was looking for help in the business world," Bren says of her mentor. "He helped me with everything you can possibly imagine."
Her acknowledgment of the importance Beech played was perhaps the highlight of the awards banquet for Story because Beech worked from the resource center.
"Anytime you hear a success story, it validates what we're doing," Story says.
The resource center is managed by Cynetta Cardwell, who says most of those seeking assistance are unaware of the considerable odds against startups.
To give them a fighting chance, the center provides a broad range of services, from the simple, one-time meeting to review one's idea to the complicated consultations for months that help ensure a would-be entrepreneur that there is a market for the product.
"Most of the people coming in say, `We need money,' " Story says. "And frequently they need lots of other things first.
"Usually we start with a business plan. Most of our customers don't have one. We sit down and take a look at what you want to do, how is it different, what is your unique niche, what is your marketing strategy - have you thought through where you fit."
The center is on Bendix Road, with complimentary furnishings from Scan Design and hand-me-downs from other companies and government agencies.
It is the services, not the fixtures, that matter to struggling entrepreneurs. In addition to seven SCORE volunteers, the center's in-house operations include a counselor from the Small Business Administration; representatives of the Jim Rouse Entrepreneurial Fund, which provides equity funding or guarantees to startups, and the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development; and assistance on international trade and franchise issues.
It also is host to numerous workshops and seminars annually.
In its 10 years, the resource center has had a noticeable shift in its clients, Cardwell says. Once, three-quarters of the people seeking assistance were white men. Today, 48 percent are women, and there has been a sharp increase in minority clients, particularly African-Americans and Asians.
"We didn't see that even five years ago," Cardwell says.
Bren says that she probably would not have succeeded without the help of Beech.
"I feel God sent him to me at the right time," Bren says. "He helped me to live through the very crucial period of the business."
And that, says Story, is the function of the center.
"She came in, got the assistance, put that to work and now is thriving," he says. "It worked the way it's intended."
The Business Resource Center is at 9250 Bendix Road. 410-313-6550.