The absence of state income taxes makes starting a business in Washington an attractive endeavor. And in the city of Vancouver, located just north of the Columbia River and only 15 minutes from Portland, Oregon, there has been a sustained effort to revitalize the downtown area for nearly 15 years.
But as the recession hit the Pacific Northwest, small businesses struggled, banks stopped lending, and business owners found their cash-flow forecasts to be inaccurate. Fortunately, the city is also home to one of the state's finest small business development centers, run by former non-bank lender and business owner Janet Ann Harte.
"Our region has certainly seen small businesses struggle in recent years," Harte says. "But because of that, we've spent a lot of time helping them understand finances and gain access to private investment. And I think that educating business owners is going to be key to their growth."
The best way to deal with financial woes is often to address them before they hit. That's why Harte spends much of her time with clients focusing on a series of workshops called "Profit Mastery." Produced by Business Resource Services in Seattle, the financial-management seminars present the basics of accounting and finance for entrepreneurs, with an emphasis on how to create and assess financial statements. Understanding how to predict cash flow is the ultimate objective.
In addition to the financial literacy series, Vancouver's SBDC matches local business owners with Washington State University students who help them with free consulting, market research, and other projects. The SBDC similarly makes introductions between its clients and local lawyers, accountants, and angel investors who have a track record of working with private companies.
Among the businesses Harte has helped in this regard is Drvn 101 Driving School. The company has since gone on to become Washington's No. 1 driver's education school.
Another client is Workshed Multimedia, a full-service creative agency based in a small town. The marketing consultancy took part in the first Profit Mastery series in 2006. In the years since then, the agency has expanded profitably, and been nominated for various national industry awards, including the Web Awards in Art Category at the South by Southwest Festival in 2009.
"For me, working with Janet in this program was like getting an MBA in 40 hours—at least the financial part of it," says Shannon Van Horn, Worksehd's co-owner. "That type of training is pretty unique and I think why our business has been able to succeed through some rough times."