The Library: Next Best Thing to an MBA

Across the country, public libraries are giving would-be entrepreneurs a helping hand with resources and expert guidance

Five year ago, Farid Ali was a Web designer for a Manhattan law firm when a friend, George Constantinou, suggested they open a restaurant together in Brooklyn. For Ali, however, there appeared to be a couple of small hurdles. First, his entire restaurant experience amounted to a brief stint as a busboy some 20 years before. Second, he had never owned his own business.

"I had always worked for other people," he says. "To become an entrepreneur was very challenging, I wasn't in that mindset." So he enrolled in an online workshop for budding entrepreneurs and came across a librarian who told him about the resources available at the public library.

For the next two years, Ali spent three hours a day, four days a week, poring over reference material, databases, and digital tools at the Brooklyn Public Library's Business Library. Constantinou joined him frequently. Together, they learned how to write a business plan, create a Web site for their business, and, as Ali says, "open a restaurant." Moreover, he says, "I realized by scanning the shelves that owning a business takes a lot more than just raising money and finding a location."


  On one visit, Ali and Constantinou saw a poster announcing the library's inaugural PowerUp! Business Plan Competition, co-sponsored by Citibank, geared to helping Brooklyn-based entrepreneurs who needed startup capital. The pair, who had already completed a rough draft of their business plan, entered the contest along with 125 other applicants.

At the end of the contest, they presented their


finished plan to a panel of judges. They won first place: $10,000 in cash and $5,000 worth of business-assistance services. "The value was so much more than the prize money," says Ali. "It validated our plan and empowered us psychologically." It also gave the pair extra credibility when they went to meet with bankers and accountants.

However, Ali says, what he really appreciates most from his library experience was the support of the librarians. "They were the most valuable resource," he says. Last year, Ali and Constantinou launched their Brooklyn eatery, Bogota Latin Bistro. And they invited all of the librarians who had helped them get to their opening night.


  Like Ali, an increasing number of would-be entrepreneurs are turning to their local public libraries for help in every aspect of launching their businesses. According to a 2006 study conducted by the American Library Assn. (ALA), a Chicago-based trade group, 61% of small-business owners living in the U.S. said libraries were important in helping them get started.

With an estimated 500,000 new small businesses launched annually and an incredibly high failure rate -- 80% within the first year, according to the Small Business Administration (SBA) -- the appetite for affordable tools and information has become enormous. Indeed, there are more than 117,000 libraries across the country, and a growing number of them now provide dedicated sections and resources for helping entrepreneurs. "What libraries are trying to do is to respond to changes in the business community," says Leslie Burger, the incoming president of the ALA and the director of the Princeton Public Library in New Jersey.


  The sheer volume of library resources available is staggering. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that many could rival an MBA program in terms of the tools they offer for instruction and information -- available for little or no cost (see BW Online, 4/2/06, "Can a Personal MBA Match the Real McCoy?").

Many libraries offer a great depth and breadth of printed and digital information on how to tackle tasks from the prosaic (such as applying for a business license) to the more complicated (like writing a business plan, securing bank financing, and generally structuring and building a business). Many also offer seminars and workshops and opportunities to meet with current and retired business owners and executives.

The San Diego Central Library in California has established its own outreach program, called "Business Resources & Technology Link," designed to assist small businesses with a series of workshops and seminars on topics such as patents, trademarks, and copyrights; Internet marketing; and e-commerce. The Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore offers an Internet-based small-business guide to help entrepreneurs write business plans. It also covers essential background for building a successful business, such as understanding market demographics and relevant industry trends.


  The Princeton Public Library in New Jersey provides seminars with the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE). Since June, 2005, the library has also offered free one-on-one counseling sessions. They have conducted 250 such sessions to date, according to Burger. And after noticing the number of entrepreneurs who used the library as a virtual office, the library designed an area with private rooms, where users can make appointments to meet with clients.

Since the Brooklyn Public Library started its dedicated small business program 10 years ago, Susan Phyllis, the Business Library's director, says that in addition to those users who are taking advantage of the library's reference materials and online resources, about 4,000 people come every year to attend its monthly seminars and workshops.

In addition to the Web and print resources, most entrepreneurs say the librarians themselves are a wealth of knowledge for would-be business owners. In 1989, when Joy Lynn de la Rén launched her mail-order company, Caring Products, which sells Camp Stamp, a permanent ink-stamp pad for use in identifying children's clothing, she went to the San Diego Central Library to research different ink formulas.


  "When I was developing this ink, I had no clue where to begin," she says. But she remembered what her third-grade librarian told her once: "It's not what you know, but knowing how to find it." She credits her local librarians with helping her launch what has become a very successful business. "The librarians went deep into the depths of the basement and brought me all these books on ink," she says. I spent a solid 48 hours in the library over several days studying them and getting ideas about how to develop my own ink."

After de la Rén came up with the right mix and developed her product -- it remains wet in the pad but permanently dry on fabric -- she returned to the library and got the information she needed, as well as the library's help in obtaining a patent for the ink. "I have a lot of gratitude," she says. "If that library weren't there, this would have been one product that wouldn't have been developed."

Indeed, Farid Ali, now a successful restaurateur, says he still considers the library a vital resource. These days, he's often invited back to Brooklyn's Business Library to help others. "Entrepreneurs come up to me," he says. "They have questions -- and the first thing I do is refer them to the library."

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