While policy wonks are using macroeconomic levers to stimulate the economy, Isles, a nonprofit community development and environmental organization located at 10 Wood Street in Trenton, is helping micro-businesses by supporting potential entrepreneurs in the city. The goal is to increase business production in Trenton and improve the quality of services and products, which dropped as people and businesses fled to the suburbs over the last quarter century.
Using the micro-financing model developed primarily in third-world countries, Isles’ “Business Bootstrap” program is enabling businesses like plant care, accounting, cleaning services, child care, carpentry, and catering to get off the ground by providing business training, small loans, and mentoring.
Leigh Gibson, program director of microbusiness development for Isles’ financial self-reliance department, is offering a seminar entitled “Are you ready for business?” on Monday, September 8, and again on Monday, September 15, at 6:30 p.m. at the Lawrenceville Presbyterian Church on Main Street. The seminars are free and serve as orientation for a 10-week course in entrepreneurship through Isles. Call 609-341-4755 for details.
Gibson, a former religion professor at Oberlin College, got turned on to this program when she was looking to change careers and talked to Liz Johnson, Isles’ COO, about working at Isles. “I asked, ‘What would you do with me if I gave you three days a week?’” recalls Gibson. “I began in the financial self-reliance department, and I was smitten with the new program.” Eventually she became a full-time Isles employee.
This Isles program targets in particular low- to moderate-income individuals, disabled people, and ex-offenders who face barriers in the regular job market. Even before thinking through the nuts and bolts of a business, potential entrepreneurs must look inward to see if they possess the character traits essential for success in running one.
Initiative and perseverance. “A lot of people want to get rid of their boss and think working for themselves will be a panacea for the frustrations they have in their job,” says Gibson. But even though it might take courage to start a business, it can be a discouraging process. “You really need commitment to your business and the ability to persevere through frustration.”
Consider one of the program’s successful entrepreneurs, whose business is creating custom wedding gifts by gathering wedding mementos in a plexiglass container. “It’s like a three-dimensional scrapbook,” says Gibson. She might include, for example, dolls like those on the wedding cake, a place setting, and an invitation.
The challenge this business owner faced was in trying to source the plexiglass case in a cost-efficient way. She had to find potential producers and then make her way through a half dozen until she found the right design at a reasonable cost. Her perseverance gave her more flexibility in pricing and she was able to expand her clientele beyond guests at high-end weddings to those attending lower-budget affairs.
Organizational skills. The essential question here is: Can you track your business income and expenses in a way that ensures you’re making money?
“A lot of people may have been producing something as a hobby at some point and want to turn it into a business,” says Gibson. But a hobby is motivated by love or passion, and hobbyists do not necessarily keep track of their spending.
To help people with tasks like these, the microbusiness development program teaches the basics of bookkeeping and encourages the entrepreneurs to get started on QuickBooks accounting software.
Personal readiness. Even if someone is otherwise suited to be an entrepreneur, personal issues can interfere and make it difficult to execute the best business idea. “We help people figure out if it is the right point in life to make that sort of commitment,” says Gibson, citing as potential problems the deteriorating health of a close relative or the care required by very young children.
If the entrepreneurial skills are there and the time is right, it’s time to focus in on the business idea. “We encourage people to pursue a business idea that they are passionate about,” says Gibson, “not to go with the latest trends but to do something they are really committed to.”
Sometimes, for example, a market is already saturated. If an entrepreneur is looking to start a business in gift baskets, for example, Gibson would encourage him or her to answer a couple of questions: What is distinctive about my gift baskets? Am I going to be able to tap into an unusual market that hasn’t already been tapped?
A potential entrepreneur may also be excited about a popular at-home business, for example, medical billing, but not possess the experience necessary to carry it off.
Once an individual has firmed up an idea, Gibson suggests finding business owners outside their geographic area who are willing to share their own experiences about challenges they have faced. “Some people are generous in their advice and the perspective they offer,” says Gibson.
Developing a detailed business plan is the next step in the process and can provide another stopping point to reconsider options. “I find that some people radically rethink the business idea and some refine it after looking at basic issues surrounding feasibility,” observes Gibson.
Gibson grew up in Toronto, where her mother was in the software industry and her father was a high-school teacher. Gibson received a bachelor’s degree in religion in 1987 from Princeton, where she later earned a doctorate in religion.
Her academic specialty is early Christianity and ancient Judaism, and she taught from 1997 to 2002 in the religion department at Oberlin College in Ohio. After moving back to the northeast she taught as an adjunct in several universities while pondering the possibilities for a second career.
Having persevered in her quest for a new career, Gibson took the initiative to volunteer at Isles. And you might say that she is using the skills she honed in education to expand the “Business Bootstrap” program at Isles just as an entrepreneur might use a similar set of skills to develop a new business.