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Help is out there for small businesses

Running a small business is never easy, and when the economy is struggling it only gets harder.

That's where Christine Pigsley comes in.

Pigsley is associate dean of business and entrepreneurship at Dakota County Technical College. She's also the person in charge of the area's Small Business Development Center, a government-funded office set up at DCTC to help businesses that employ 500 or fewer employees with everything from marketing to balancing the books.

The SBDC, which has regional offices across the United States, can help people looking to start a business, but Pigsley said much of what the center does involves helping small businesses get bigger or struggling businesses get healthier. She and the two other consultants who work at the center can help business owners develop a presence on the Internet, learn better accounting techniques or learn how to manage employees.

Depending on a business' needs the center's services range from providing quick answers to in-depth analysis. The best part? There's no charge for any of it.

Pigsley said keeping the services free allows consultants to be completely honest with their clients.

"I'm not being paid to tell the client what they want to hear or anything else," she said. "My goal is to help that client and be as honest as I can."

The idea, Pigsley said, is to give people the tools they need to succeed.

"A lot of people are really good at their craft. They're great technicians," she said. "They're not always the best managers. They're not always the best accountants."

Pigsley knows a little something about running a small business. She was working as a chamber of commerce director in a small Iowa town when she decided to put her money where her mouth was and go into business for herself. She started three businesses, including a tuxedo shop. But when the economy went bad she closed one, sold another and remade the tuxedo shop into a mobile tuxedo service. The tuxedo shop quickly went from one employee to seven.

Pigsley, who has owned 11 businesses in all, came to DCTC in 2004 and at first was the only employee of the local SBDC. Last year the center added two more consultants. Everybody at the center has experience running a business. Even Pigsley's assistant has a business on the side.

"I probably bring more experience in the failures I've had in my own businesses," she said. "A lot of (advice) is what I failed at: 'Here's the mistake. I'm telling you about it so you don't make the same mistake.'"

Business at the center has picked up as the economy has gone south. Pigsley said while some business owners seem resigned to their fates others are doing everything they can to stay afloat.

"It's the fighters that we see," she said. "We see somebody that says, 'I've been doing business like this for 20 years and I've gotta change. I don't know how to change. Help me change.'"

All consulting done at the SBDC is confidential.

People seem especially to need help working with banks that have become less willing to lend money.

Much of the SBDC's business comes from word of mouth but Pigsley is working to get the word out. She's worked with area chambers of commerce and she's approached Tina Hansmeier, Farmington's economic development specialist, about spreading the word to the city's businesses.

"They want these business owners to know that, hey, there's someone to help out here," Hansmeier said.

Someone from the SBDC worked briefly with Lisa Bolduc, owner of the T.C. Davis Manor Bed and Breakfast, but Bolduc said it was mostly an informal conversation.

Ultimately, Pigsley believes building a health base of small businesses will be good for Dakota County and its cities.

"If we grow our own businesses we stand a lot better chance of sustaining those than trying to attract some giant retailer or some giant company," she said. "I think you see that mentality in the city of Farmington because the city of Farmington has just really been active in trying to get their downtown area revitalized and trying to grow their own businesses. We can help that."