Small Business Advice Programme – Interview with John McSweeney
For anyone following the small business news in Ireland, it seems like the deck is stacked against them. But there are beacons of support throughout the country. One of the brightest beacons is the Small Business Advice Programme. In this interview, John McSweeney, project manager, tells us about the programme and how Irish small business owners can take advantage of mentoring, advice and support.
Who founded the Small Business Advice Programme and what inspired them?
SmallBusinessAdvice.ie was set up as a not for profit organization and is the brainchild of Simon Coveney, TD. He decided to set up a non-political group of experienced business professionals who would give their time free of charge to help those who could not afford to pay for such a service. A “big brother helping little brother” programme. He approached John Mullins, the then CEO of Bord Gáis Éireann for help with sponsorship and JJ O’Connell, Director of Plato Cork – Plato Ireland and Family Business Ireland for support. It was officially launched as a pilot in the Cork region in October 2009, expanded into the South East Region in May 2010, the Mid West Region October 2010 and the in the Greater Dublin Area March 2012.
It’s great to see that Irish business owners in places like Cork, Waterford and Dublin can get this kind of advice. How does the Small Business Programme work?
The aim of the Small Business Advice Programme is to provide a free and confidential advice service for small business to help them survive the challenges that the current economic climate contains: “To help Keep Your Business, in Business”. It is not designed as an ongoing support or mentoring service. The applicant and adviser meetings are capped at 3 x 3 hour meeting max so that the business does not become over reliant on the advice service or adviser.
Each applicant discusses their advice requirements with the project manager and completes a brief questionnaire which gives the project manager more information regarding the company, the owner and the areas where they require advice. The project manager allocates an adviser to the applicant and/or the small business.
We are also in contact with local chambers of commerce, business associations, Enterprise Boards and these also refer business to us for support. Similarly we would refer business to these associations also.
What is the definition of a small business in this programme?
Our “target audience” is the local corner shop, butcher, hairdresser, café, retail outlet, sole trader, partnership or limited company who generally employs less that 10 people and has a turnover of less that €500,000; generally a company who cannot afford to pay for an advice service.
As Project Manager, I am responsible for the day-to-day running of the programme. I contact all the applicants, discuss their needs, review the completed questionnaires and discuss with the advisers the needs of the applicant before they meet. After the advisory sessions, I follow up with both applicant and adviser to get feedback …to see if there are ways we can improve the service.
I contact and meet with business associations and business networking groups, giving a presentation on the service we provide and encouraging then to contact us if they or any of their family, friends and colleagues need some business advice.
How are the advisers chosen?
Mainly they are recruited by reference through our existing adviser network. Other advisers come from presentations I give to business groups and more by contacting me through the web site.
All advisers complete an Adviser Profile which gives us information on their background and experiences and they also sign up to our Code of Conduct when dealing with a small business.
What are the most common issues that small business owners seek advice for?
Initially it was mostly financial advice – balancing accounts, cash flow planning, budgets and forecasting, getting paid. Unfortunately, it was “negative” problems and issues. Also, they sought advice for reducing overheads, downsizing, staff redundancies and credit terms.
More recently, the issues are positive ones. As in, how can I grow and expand my business, companies seeking a “company health check”, overview of the company and structure and recruiting staff / staff contacts.
What is next for this programme in 2013?
We’re planning further expansion across the Midlands and the West but a launch date has yet to be finalised.
If an Irish small business owner wants assistance, how could he/she apply to the Small Business Advice Programme?
The best way is to apply through our web site at www.smallbusinessadvice.ie
Small business owners throughout Ireland can call us on the LoCall number – 1850-763-763.
Many thanks to John McSweeney for taking the time to explain the Small Business Advice Programme. It can be such a boost for a small business owner to connect with an adviser who has “been there, done that” to learn how to manage positive and negative situations with more skill. Whether you are facing a dilemma or an opportunity, please take a look and see if it could be a great resource for you.