What if you could get free consulting services that empower your business to grow, increase your operational efficiency, and jump-start your marketing efforts? That is exactly what the Business Growth Mentor and Analysis program (MAP) from Washington State University Vancouver provides to startups and small businesses in southwest Washington.
“I never would have thought I could afford what I got – the value was amazing,” said Bonnie Brasure, owner of Vancouver-based Bleu Door Bakery.
The program’s student consultancy helps local small businesses and entrepreneurs succeed while providing educational opportunities for WSU Vancouver’s Carson College of Business students. The program is comprised of about 500 hours of pro-bono student consultancy, a monthly small business forum and an educational course for small business owners. WSU Vancouver faculty oversee the program, and an experienced business community member serves as a mentor for the students as they work on their project.
Right now, business community members have an opportunity to ensure that MAP will continue to be a valuable resource for the foreseeable future. Anonymous donors have offered to match donations through September 1 – the goal is to raise $12,500, which will grow to a $25,000 endowment with the match. The fundraising campaign is only a few thousand dollars away from the goal, and Jane Cote, Ph.D., academic cirector at WSU Vancouver’s Carson College of Business, said that even small donations get matched.
“Every little bit helps. This is an opportunity for everyone to be contributing,” said Cote. “What can each business contribute so we can take advantage of this very generous offer?”
The match offer was triggered by MAP’s growth over the last six years.
“We are growing like crazy,” Cote stated. “We’re seeing more and more clients, getting more mentors and involving more students.”
According to MAP’s 2015-2016 annual report, MAP conducted 49 projects for 39 clients.
Wolff Specialties was one of those clients. The small Vancouver-based firm, which converts vehicles to propane fuel, has experienced substantial growth, and plans on adding one or two employees in the next year or two as the alternative fuel industry advances. To prepare for that growth, they engaged with MAP to fine-tune the business.
“They helped us immensely,” said Penny Wolff, who co-owns the business with her husband Dan.
The students helped prepare forward-looking operational charts, tailored accounting processes and devised new forms. One form in particular, said Wolff, used for ordering a conversion, cut the intake process from 1.5 hours/vehicle to just 30 minutes.
“That’s a huge saving in labor, and the efficiency gain was also huge,” Wolff said. “Now I’m asking the right questions and documenting the answers. The failure rate became zero because we get the right parts the first time.”
Bleu Door participated in MAP the prior year (2014-2015). Brasure said her business was growing so fast that it “was out of control” and was generating close to a million dollars in revenue, experiencing double-digit growth every year since it opened in 2012. She wanted to devise an exit strategy, asking herself, “What do I do with this thing I have created?”
“I couldn’t see what I could do because I was so busy with day to day tasks,” said Brasure.
According to Brasure, her MAP team consisted of “the most amazing students and an incredible mentor,” who helped her understand where her business was headed and provided insight into the possibilities. Working with a representative from the Small Business Administration (SBA), the students analyzed Bleu Door’s financials and proved that the business could afford to buy the building it occupied.
“Now I have built something of value that I can sell, that is bigger than just ‘Bonnie,’” Brasure said.
One reason MAP is so successful, said Cote, is that the students are fresh and energetic and provide perspectives that a seasoned professional hasn’t thought of.
Hannah Swift, who graduated from WSU Vancouver with her BA in Business in 2016 and will finish her MBA on July 28, has participated in two MAP projects, most recently helping a farm create a business centered around farm-to-table events.
“We offer something very unique,” said Swift. “Businesses have an opportunity to work with someone who is learning something new every day. We have creative ideas that may or may not work, but even if they don’t work, they can foster new additional ideas. A different perspective can be very valuable.”
Another “secret sauce” for MAP, said Cote, is the quality of mentors associated with the program.
“We have so many volunteers that are business professionals that serve as mentors, who help the client frame the challenges they are facing, and help the students up their professional game and hone in on the key points and skills,” Cote said.
The program has attracted not only local recognition, but also the attention of several national associations. For example, MAP won the 2017 “Excellence in Innovations” award from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, as well as the “Excellence in Talent and Place” award from the University Economic Development Association in 2016 and the “Excellence in Economic Development” award from the American Association of State Colleges and Universities in 2015.
“While we believe MAP is great for Southwest Washington, the wider world is also recognizing that what we are doing is truly remarkable on the national stage,” said Cote.
The program has added some new learning opportunities this year, such as the Tech Collective, which uses cohort-based training to accelerate business growth. The first Tech Collective featured five local tech companies learning together over five months, taught by WSU faculty and local experts, with mentor support.
If you are considering engaging with MAP, Brasure and Wolff have some sage advice.
“Be open, take the criticism and run with it,” said Brasure. “Hear what they are telling you – it won’t all be nice, but it will be amazing.”
“Actively participate – the students can only be as good as the amount of information they get,” Wolff added. “The more time you can give them, the more benefit you’ll get.”
Cote encourages business community members to contact her if they are interested in donating to the endowment campaign, becoming a program mentor or participating in a MAP project. You can reach her at 360.546.9756 or firstname.lastname@example.org.