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Tuesday, 17 April 2012 10:17

Smart growth: Mentors’ ‘informal education’ important to launching, growing businesses

Written by  Kym Reinstadler
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Smart growth: Mentors’ ‘informal education’ important to launching, growing businesses PHOTO: Elijah Brumback
WEST MICHIGAN — Education can come in many forms, and while college business programs are certainly important, sometimes the best education for entrepreneurs comes from other entrepreneurs and mentors in the business world.

Just ask owner Chad Lawie.

The good news is that the company’s sales have skyrocketed 200 percent over the last two years. The bad news is that the Muskegon-based virtual assistant company has had to wait-list customers twice so far in 2012. Lawrie now has 12 full-time employees, but he can’t hire and train workers fast enough.

He turned to the tech team at the Michigan Small Business and Technology Development Center for help.

“You can blow your stitching when you have to hire several people at a time,” said Jason Pliml, a technology business consultant mentoring Lawie on how to preserve LongerDays’ unique culture.

Establishing processes for workflow will be key, especially since LongerDays provides an array of services to clients in many countries, Pliml said.

Without good processes, Lawie will squander time just getting through the workday and won’t devote time to strategically grow and market the company, Pliml said.

“Jason has been a stabilizing force,” Lawie said. “He helps us identify which areas of our business we should be focusing on to ensure the company continues to operate smoothly as it grows. … It’s just reassuring to be able to talk to someone who has been there before.”

Pliml is part of a nine-member tech team affiliated with the MI-SBTDC, whose headquarters are in Grand Valley State University’s Seidman College of Business in Grand Rapids.

Tech consulting is predominantly funded by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

Pliml and his team mentor new technology businesses in designated fields with high-growth potential to help them become viable. Consultants may also work with established businesses spinning out new products.

He comes alongside a business three to six months before it is ready to market a product or service.

Half of the 15 businesses on his caseload need to raise money for patent applications, trademark development, market research or sales campaigns. The amount they need to raise ranges from $10,000 to $1 million.

Pliml, who joined the agency in November 2011, can hook up startups with angel investors, venture capitalists, and the Michigan Pre-Seed Capital Fund, which provides public funds to complement private investment.

“You only get one chance to pitch to an investor,” Pliml said. “A lot of times, I play the role of an investor because I know where they’ll see red flags waving. Few people have gone through this process. They appreciate someone telling them what they’re going to hear.”

Pliml, 37, a self-proclaimed computer geek, has started three technology-based businesses. Two were software-consulting companies, one with a partner and one without. The third, Mock Fantasy Draft, ran fantasy football and baseball leagues. Pliml and his board decided to sell company — after operating it for eight years — to their highest-bidding competitor in 2010.

Pliml said his passion for professional sports has always been linked with business. As a youngster growing up in Stevensville, he collected trading cards, always calculating what player cards he could buy low but sell high.

Fantasy sports leagues consumed him as an adult. Stakes going into a draft were so high that Pliml decided to create a mock draft online to practice making choices against other owners.

It caught on.

After taking some time off and sharpening his skills in accounting and sales, Pliml began mentoring entrepreneurs through Rick DeVos’s new business accelerator program, Momentum.

In his new position, he works with businesses closer to commercialization, Pliml said.

With Mock Fantasy Draft, Pliml said he achieved the satisfaction of creating something of lasting value that could be sold.

Without the internal business processes he’s now teaching Lawie, Pliml said all he would have made was a business that might fail if he didn’t work like a firefighter every day.

“The biggest myth in business is that, if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door,” Pliml said. “It’s the business model, not the product, that’s most important.”

Proof positive is Apple versus Microsoft products, Pliml said. Apple has the better operating system and better hardware, yet Microsoft dominated for decades because its business model of licensing to many manufacturers worked best at that time.

“I don’t expect clients to revere me as if I know everything, because I don’t,” Pliml said. “If I share what I’m seeing, and if some of it makes sense to them and they try it, I hope it will make their way easier.”

Editor’s note: This article has been changed. A previous version contained a misspelling of Chad Lawie’s last name.

Read 3439 times Last modified on Thursday, 09 August 2012 16:20

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