School Is In For Entrepreneurs

Continuing education courses abound. Here's how to pick the right one.

Judi Henderson-Townsend is in a business where role models and industry associations are hard to come by. As owner of Oakland, California-based Mannequin Madness, Henderson-Townsend sells new and used mannequins at a discounted price. Before opening the doors to her two-employee company in 2001, Henderson-Townsend signed up for a 14-week, $400 business course at the San Francisco Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center. There, the 47-year-old businesswoman learned about marketing, management, finance, taxes, and record keeping. The program also included Excel software classes, financial coaching, and a business plan review.

The fact that Mannequin Madness has since grown its own legs hasn’t stopped Henderson-Townsend from taking more business training. She recently took a four-week course called “Grow Your Business” for $200 from the same provider. “It helped me put together an inventory management system, which I really didn’t even know I needed,” she says, noting inventory has ballooned from 50 to 5,000 mannequins over the last three years. “The center referred me to a consultant, who set me up with the right software and systems to track my inventory. It’s been invaluable.” The course paid off. Henderson-Townsend is expanding her business to Atlanta later this month.

She credits her willingness to learn in an educational environment — rather than just relying on hands-on, trial-and-error experiences — with helping her turn a quirky idea into a viable business that today brings in $200,000 in annual sales.

Henderson-Townsend is among a number of small business owners who are taking courses to help them better manage company growth, employees, financial operations, and other key areas. These days, everything from one-day trainings to full-credit courses are offered at universities, in addition to workshops offered by local chambers of commerce.

“There’s a glut of management training on the market, including classroom, Internet, and CD-driven courses,” says John Reddish, president of Advent Management International Ltd. in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania. “Some of it is excellent, some of it is awful, and you usually can’t tell which is which from the promotional materials.”

Tiffany Morrison of Los Angeles took a four-hour course titled “Doing Business with the Government.” Unfortunately, the 35-year-old entrepreneur says she wasted more time than she gained knowledge. “We were supposed to come away with an idea of how to do business and develop contacts with the government,” says Morrison, president of Lane Marketing L.L.C. “I think it was something the county held in order to be able to check off a box saying it was doing small business outreach.”

Morrison had a different experience when she signed up for a 12-hour, $99 QuickBooks course through a local community college. Morrison, whose 2-year-old firm brings in $350,000 in annual sales, says she came to class with questions about her new QuickBooks system and brought actual receipts and documents to show the instructor. “I got the instructor to help me with my specific issues and walked away with a working knowledge of QuickBooks.”

So how do time-strapped entrepreneurs pick courses that will truly help them build their companies and not just waste time and money? Robert L.

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