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Continued: A dogged determination

  • Article by: TODD NELSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Last update: July 19, 2009 - 10:09 PM

Starting a small business may be the answer for those who have taken a trip down the corporate exit ramp.

A new business development program -- FastTrac LaunchPad -- aims to provide dislocated workers and other aspiring entrepreneurs with a start-up road map of sorts.

The hands-on curriculum covers planning, creating and managing a company as well as strategies for getting bigger.

FastTrac LaunchPad is getting a national launch thanks to a $500,000 grant earlier this year from the Deluxe Corporation Foundation -- the charitable arm of Shoreview-based Deluxe Corp. -- and a matching sum from the Kauffman Foundation, which champions small-business education programs.

The next 10-session class begins Sept. 15 at the University of St. Thomas Schulze School of Entrepreneurship. The cost is $395. The course is a condensed, accelerated version of Kauffman's FastTrac business development course, which St. Thomas has offered for at least 15 years, program manager Fran Gretz said.

FastTrac LaunchPad is designed to get displaced workers back into the marketplace quickly. The hope is that new ventures launched by FastTrac LaunchPad students will create jobs and contribute to an economic recovery, according to Lee Schramm, president of the Deluxe Corporation Foundation and Deluxe Corp. CEO.

"There are 122,000 small businesses in the state of Minnesota," Schramm said. "Those businesses employ 98 percent of the people. People often think it's the Deluxes, the Targets, the Best Buys or Medtronics that employ everybody when in reality it's the small-business owners who really are the key driver of the economy."

The Deluxe Foundation has given more than $85 million in grants since its creation in the 1950s, Schramm said, most of them targeted at literacy and other educational efforts.

Encouraging small-business development also ties in with Deluxe Corporation's growth strategy, Schramm said. The company, largely known for selling checks to small businesses and financial institutions, in recent years has begun marketing an expanding lineup of products and services to small businesses. These include imaging and promotional products as well as logo and Web design services and social networking for small businesses through Deluxe's PartnerUp.com website.

"Almost 60 percent of Deluxe's business is products and services that we sell directly to the small-business owner," Schramm said. The FastTrac LaunchPad program has seen a sharp upswing in enrollment since its announcement in March, Gretz said. Workforce centers also refer employees who have lost their jobs.

Among those who have completed the program recently are John Greving of Mendota Heights, who had lost his position as an educational administrator.

Greving used the course to develop a plan to launch a business -- Barbara Greving Studio: Dog as Art -- based on his wife's talents as a classically trained artist who specializes in dog portraits.

She does the portraits in a Flemish oil painting technique reminiscent of the Dutch masters (think of Bowser done up as Gainsborough's Blue Boy. Look for samples of her work at www.BarbaraGrevingStudio.com.)

She will produce, and her husband will market, three product lines: dog portraits based on historical paintings; paintings of dogs at play, and commissioned, one-of-a-kind dog portraits. They also plan to license images of her paintings for reproduction on mugs and other items.

"It brings a sense of reality to maybe what you had been thinking about or dreaming about doing," John Greving said of the FastTrac LaunchPad course. "It helps you understand maybe why we're in the situation we are in economically, because it's hard to run a business. You get a better sense of why businesses do succeed and why some fail."

Another recent participant, Jeannie Androsoff, was an executive assistant at Best Buy for five years before she accepted a voluntary severance package in February.

While at Best Buy, she had begun creating note cards to give employees after big presentations. The cards, which Androsoff markets under the name D-brief: A Case for Changes, summarizes a speaker's key points as well as observations from employees who attended.

"It's really to sustain learning and [the] moment," Androsoff said. "It's a lot of the inspirational stuff that comes from the meetings. If people have one or two quotes that are really significant to them, they can pass the cards around to other team members or keep them on their desk as a reminder."

Androsoff is ramping up her company, Green Chair Creations (www. greenchaircreations.com) while also running a virtual assistant business that she started from home after she left Best Buy.

"This is just such a wonderful opportunity in this economy," she said of the FastTrac LaunchPad course. "I feel like I'm creating more job security for myself by being a business owner. I could go out and get another corporate job, but who's to say I wouldn't get laid off again in six months?"

Participants often get more out of the course than a business plan, said Cheryl Bann, a Kauffman-certified FastTrac instructor.

"This is a transformational experience," Bann said. "The icing on the cake is seeing how people change. How they're more empowered and excited and sometimes a little bit scared. But they're smart scared.

"They're able to look and assess as opposed to taking blind leaps of faith. That's really what it's all about. Trying to figure out how to make the best decision."

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is todd_nelson@mac.com.

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