Free advising for small businesses in Snohomish County

Jennifer Shelton’s office smells like coffee, a scent that permeates from the one-cup espresso machine on her left and the golden mug to her right.

Who knows. Given Shelton’s history, maybe there’s coffee in her veins.

But the mug turns cold while Shelton talks about the language of spreadsheets and why “The E-Myth Revisited” is a must-read.

Coffee was her father’s passion. Small business, that’s Shelton’s.

Shelton is the engine that drives Snohomish County’s Small Business Development Center. A certified business adviser, she acts as a marketing consultant, financial analyst, counselor and jack-of-all-trades to struggling business owners.

And her services are absolutely free.

She’s one in a handful of advisers who serve 26 regions in the state, funded by federal grants and complicated web of appropriations involving Edmonds Community college, the Small Business Administration and Washington State University. She works out of a small office in a south Everett business park, sharing space with her right-hand assistant, Marjorie Tyson.

They counsel hundreds of small-business owners a year, many of whom didn’t realize the all-consuming nature of running a business.

“There’s a difference between creating a job and creating a business,” Shelton tells them. “You don’t get weekends off, you don’t get evenings off. It’s always on your shoulders. You really have to love what you do. It’s hard on marriages. It’s hard on a lot of things.”

Often Shelton helps with business development plans and loan portfolio development. She advises about marketing techniques and reviews spreadsheets for accounting errors.

And Shelton waxes a bit poetic when she talks about the intricacies of packaging, efficiency, market expansion and variable expenses.

“Everything that happens in a business shows up in the numbers,” she said. “It’s just another story, another language.”

Later: “Pricing is very much — I call it an art. It has emotional components to it as well as financial.”

Shelton didn’t get that outlook with her MBA. That came partly from years toiling as a manager and part-owner of a coffee shop in Fort Langley, just over the Canadian border.

The coffee shop was a life-long dream for the Starbucks fan, fueled partly by her father’s love of coffee.

“My father was an avid coffee drinker — I grew up going to coffee shops with him,” she said.

But after years of working long hours for little pay, she went back to school at Western Washington University for her master’s degree.

And that’s when she found small-business counseling.

The last year has been hard on her clients.

Debt load is a hot topic in her office now. Business owners need help preparing applications for refinancing. And she’s seen inquiries about small-business stimulus funding grow like wildfire.

Essentially, she sees her role as one thing: keeping business from failure.

“If a business isn’t growing, it’s dying,” she said. “Like a baby needs milk, a business needs cash.”

Read Amy Rolph’s small-business blog at www.heraldnet.com/TheStorefront. Contact her at 425-339-3029 or arolph@heraldnet.com.

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