Although the number of small businesses in the United States Steady growth over the past 20 yearsA local nonprofit was founded three years ago to support the entrepreneurs who make up this large but often unprofitable part of the U.S. economy.
According to CEO AJ Drexler, Entrepreneurs Forever has served more than 500 businesses in southwestern Pennsylvania with less than $1 million in annual revenue. Through her organization, business owners join about 10 other entrepreneurs in peer support groups, including a trained facilitator.
“Most businesses … work with us, they don’t necessarily become billion-dollar unicorns,” Drexler said.
They include a range of goods and service providers, such as hair salons, restaurants, bakeries and gyms, she said. Entrepreneurs Forever also operates in Buffalo, New York, as well as in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Drexler said the nonprofit plans to expand to new locations in 2023.
“What we’re really looking at are community businesses that want to stay in the community for the long term: They don’t want to be bought by private equity with the expectation that they have to sell within a certain period of time.”
Growth remains a priority, she said, however, in part to ensure stability for owners, but also to recruit more locally.
In December, Entrepreneurs Forever invited 96 companies in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties to become members. Joining is free, Drexler said, thanks to a $320,000 grant from the Henry L. Hillman Foundation. She estimates 50 attractions are still open.
Nationwide, 99.9% of businesses are considered small businesses, According to the U.S. Small Business Administration. While this category includes companies with as many as 499 employees, 80 percent of them have no employees. The average annual revenue of these businesses is less than $50,000, According to the US Census Bureau.
“This is not a sustainable economic situation,” Drexler said. “Our families and communities cannot prosper when most of our businesses are not generating enough revenue to support their owners. So we all need small businesses and their owners to prosper over the long term.”
After one year on Entrepreneurs Forever, business owners reported an average 32 percent increase in revenue, she said. Three years later, that growth rate jumped to 63%, she said.
Members of the nonprofit met monthly for three years to discuss coping with the ups and downs of running a business, as well as topics such as marketing, finance and staffing.
“Most business owners start a business because they’re good at or passionate about something,” says Drexler. “But oftentimes, what got them into that business wasn’t actually running the business. So beyond the startup stage, business owners need long-term skills and support to continue growing their business.”
“It’s a skill of its own,” agreed Entrepreneurs Forever member Donald Robinson, “and it’s hard to talk to people who don’t have the same risk or the same level of responsibility for what happened.”
He opened a personal training studio called Global Human Performance in North Point Breeze in 2017. Since joining Entrepreneurs Forever in 2020, his revenue has grown 30% a year, he said.
He said the program has taught him to better manage employees and improve the customer experience. He noted that his staff has grown from one coach to six and that GHP now has about 60 clients.
He said other members of his support group included a baker, landscape architect, artist, gift wrap maker and bookkeeper. He said their service provider owns a professional wig salon.
Unlike some members of his team, Robinson doesn’t have to manage product inventory. But he said it would be helpful to understand how they approached those challenges and to “ask the right questions and think more about things outside my own four walls”.
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