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With Odds Against Them, Local Small Businesses Have Help

Sean Sandefur

Starting a small business is hard, and keeping it going is even harder. It’s estimated that only one in three make it to the 10-year mark. But an organization in Wichita is helping both new and existing businesses keep their dreams alive.

On a hot, blacktop parking lot, Summer Guerrero greets one of her regulars. She’s owned After Hours Auto Repair in Southwest Wichita with her husband Mark for seven years.

Inside, the couple pulls together some chairs in the waiting room, right next to the car manuals and vending machines.

“Mark and I have been together since we were sixteen,” Summer says. “And back then he said he wanted to own his own business.”

Credit Small Business Administration

At that point, it was just a dream - and it stayed that way for some time. Mark worked as a mechanic for many years and Summer joined the Army Reserve as a firefighter, which led to a 16-month tour in Iraq.

“We had a lot of traumatic things happen in our life,” she says.” Really, me going over to Iraq, I realized that time is really short. [Mark] supported me in becoming a firefighter, now it's time for me to support him.”

“Since we met, we’ve always been that way - I support her, she supports me,” Mark adds. “It’s a back and forth, kind of like a teeter totter.”

When Summer came home from Iraq she was diagnosed with breast cancer, but after finishing treatment, she set her mind to helping start their business.

Credit Small Business Administration

“I started looking into programs where I could take classes and figure out what all we needed to do to start a business,” Summer says. “And we started saving and jotting down equipment and things that we might need, putting our business plan together.”

The two eventually found their way to the Kansas Small Business Development Center. The program is part of a national network that helps companies that typically have fewer than 200 employees.

Through consultation and workshops with the center, they got their business up and running. They eventually outgrew their original shop. Mark says they then reached out to their consultant once again and they worked on moving to a bigger location.

“I have the knowledge of fixing the cars and running the back of the shop, but there’s still areas where we like to consult with somebody before we jump into something,” he explains. “We don’t want to make the mistake of expanding too soon and then running into problems. So [our consultant] was able to go through each step and he’s like, ‘yeah, it’s going to work.’ So we went forward with it.”

Summer and Mark opened their expanded location four years ago. They were given information about how many cars would be driving by their business, the household incomes of their new community and any businesses they’d be competing with.

Credit Sean Sandefur
Regional Director Marcia Stevens stands outside of the Kansas Small Business Development Center on the campus of Wichita State University.

The Kansas Small Business Development Center is located on the campus of Wichita State University. Marcia Stevens is the regional director here; she and her staff of six consultants serve 23 counties in central Kansas. They also have outreach locations that provide consultation to rural communities. Just in the last year they’ve helped create 64 new businesses, about 500 full and part time jobs, and their clients generated over $53 million in sales.

“We have an average of ten businesses that contact us every week, just interested in getting started,” Stevens says. “We start them in a free two-hour workshop, learning the basics of marketing, management and money.”

The organization states that for every $1 spent on this program, there are $43 generated in the local economy. In addition to helping start new businesses, they offer advice to existing ones.

“We have some clients that come in once a year and just sit down and chat with a consultant and say, ‘Ok this is what I'm doing, what do you think?’ And a lot of times, we say, ‘Hey, we think you're right on target,’” she says. “On other occasions we'll spot something or ask a few questions and they'll say, ‘I never thought about that.”

Their list of clients is vast and can be eccentric, from emu farms to dentists to manufacturing companies.

“You name it, it’s probably been through our doors - we assist everyone.”

Troy Lott and his business partner Todd Schwartz sit at a long wooden desk at their offices along Douglas Street. They represent two out of three founding members of Intake Studios - the other, Heath Balderston, is visiting their new offices in Kansas City. Lott says that in the early days of their company, it was touch and go.

Credit Sean Sandefur
Troy Lott, left, and his business partner Todd Schwartz, represent two out of the three founding members of Intake Studios. They are a video production, motion graphics and animation company that just celebrated their 10th anniversary.

“It was hard because we didn't have any customers. You're going out on your own, you're taking over a lease payment automatically, you have your own salaries that you’re concerned about,” Lott recounts. “I think the first job we did was free. And that's a heck of way to start out, when you're trying to make money for yourself.”

They now produce visual marketing campaigns for clients such as KU, Hartman Oil and the Wichita Area Technical College.

Todd Schwartz says the three founding members all brought their own expertise to the table, and that they’ve added 6 others to the help round out their services.

“Troy was our editor, I shot everything, Heath was our designer and our art director,” Schwartz says. “We had a need for motion graphics and animation, so we added that first person and then it just grew from there.”

The Kansas Small Business Development Center helped their company in the beginning as well as years later as they expanded to Kansas City. Lott says they’ve been invaluable to Intake Studios over the past ten years.

“They continue to provide financial analysis of our company, they measure us against other small businesses our same size, not just locally and regionally, but nationally as well,” Lott says.

Both After Hours Auto Repair and Intake Studios say there’s no ceiling when it comes to their growth. They say they’ll continue to tap into the outside consultation that has helped them get this far.

To view the Small Business Administration's Kansas 'Small Business Profile,' Click Here

Follow Sean Sandefur on Twitter, @SeanSandefur