Six things small business owners can do to prepare to take advantage of college and university resources

In case my post last week gave you some ideas for college and university resources your small business could use to its advantage, this week I am outlining some general preparations as well as some challenges to be aware of at the outset:

• Determine your needs and be prepared to explain them. To some degree this is no different from securing any other potential service provider, new employee or new supplier. An additional challenge can be that most college employees are attuned first and foremost to helping students or focused on their own fields so may not relate as readily to your needs as a small business owner as would another organization or person for whom small businesses are the main customer.

• Look for institution(s) with resources that fit well with your business and needs. Once you know what you need, explore the offerings of several schools to find a good fit. If you need expertise in a particular area, you will need to search for a school with that expertise rather than simply going to those nearby. For example, if you are in the sports industry and looking for interns, focus on schools with sports management programs. Since you will become aware of other resources that may help in the future, this exploration has value in its own right.

• Allow for delays once you have found the specific resource(s) with which you want to work. Colleges and universities run on academic calendars and synchronizing a business’ schedule with semesters and school vacations can be a challenge. Projects with students often start at the beginning of semesters and almost all staff and faculty have responsibilities that ebb and flow with academic deadlines. If you want a student intern for the academic year, you will need to be sensitive to changing class schedules as your intern goes from Fall to Spring semesters. Exceptions to this rule are offices such as the Small Business Development Center Network and others set up specifically to serve businesses.

• Do your part to make the relationship successful. As with resources of all kinds, be prepared to do your part to get the most out of the experience. For example, if you join an industry-university center, take advantage of its meetings and programs to gain knowledge and build connections that will maximize the benefits of your membership.

• Budget realistically. While library, class project, and Small Business Development Center Network help is often free, other resources typically require payment. As with everything else you do, consider what makes sense for your expense budget but do expect to pay for the use of expensive equipment and facilities as well time and effort from faculty, staff and student experts outside of class projects.

• Recognize the challenges of dealing with a (much) bigger organization. Even the smallest school is likely much bigger than your small business. Keep in mind that large organizations of any kind typically work more slowly and bureaucratically than a nimble small business. If you are simply a library patron, the only requirement may be proving that you own a business in the state that is funding the school. As your work with school resources becomes more complex there will likely be additional requirements.

Is it worth the time and effort to tap into college and university resources? Only you can answer that question for your small business. In my experience, small business owners who think of it as an opportunity to get something for nothing will most likely be disappointed. On the other hand, small business owners who define their needs carefully, engage energetically, value the experience, and appreciate the differences between business and higher education organizations are the most likely to gain from tapping into these resources.

Has your small business benefitted from the use of any college or university resources? What worked well? Share your success stories here!

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Karen Utgoff, principal of Karen Lauter Utgoff Consulting, is a market-oriented business strategist based in Amherst, MA. Learn more at http://www.utgoff.com.

© Karen Lauter Utgoff Consulting 2012. All rights reserved.

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